The Day of the Lord

The day of our Lord's return brings about the resurrection of believers, the judgment of unbelievers, and the renewal of creation. The general resurrection restores the temporary rupture of body and soul at the time of death and places all human beings before God's judgment seat. Believers are comforted by [the hope for] this bodily redemption, which represents Christ's final deliverance from sin and its consequences and brings them into the full joy of communion with their Lord. As our Lord's own resurrection shows, the final resurrection maintains continuity between the earthly body and the glorified resurrection body. Persons retain their individual identities. Precisely how this happens we do not know and should not speculate; what is important is the substantial unity as well as qualitative distinction between what the apostle calls the "natural body" and the "spiritual body" (1 Cor. 15). Because the resurrection body is re-formed rather than created wholly anew, burial rather than cremation is the preferred mode of Christian care of the dead. After the resurrection comes the judgment. While there is already an immanent judgment upon sin in our world and history, it is a pantheistic error to reduce world judgment to world history. The final judgment will be a global and public vindication of the gospel and Christ's rule. The objections to eternal punishment of the wicked and the various alternatives to it, such as hypothetical and unconditional universalism as well as conditional immortality, appeal naturally to human sentiment but finally have no ground in Scripture. The clear teaching of Scripture, along with firm conviction about the integrity of God's justice, should be sufficient and deter us from undue speculation. God will be God and will be glorified.

The day of the Lord (יוֹם יהוה, yôm YHWH) or the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (ἡ ἡμερα του κυριου ἡμων Ἰησου Χριστου, hē hēmera tou kyriou hēmōn Iēsou Christou; Matt. 24:36ff.; Luke 17:24ff.; 21:34; Acts 17:31; 1 Cor. 1:8; 5:5; etc.) begins with the appearance of Christ on the clouds. By speaking of a "day" Scripture does not by any means intend to convey that all the things that fall under the heading of "the last things"—Christ's return, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment—will occur in a time frame of twelve or twenty-four hours. In Old Testament times the day of the Lord was the time in which God, in a marvelously glorious way, would come to his people as king to redeem them from all their enemies and to settle them with him in Jerusalem in peace and security. In that event of God's coming began the great turning point in which the old aeon passed into the new, and all conditions and connections in the natural and human world changed totally. In later Jewish thought, the idea was that in the day of the Lord the present world aeon would pass into the future world aeon, which would then frequently be still further differentiated in three generations or in the days of the Messiah—lasting 40 or 100 or 600 or 1,000 or 2,000 or 7,000 years—and the subsequently beginning eternity.1

According to the New Testament, the last part of the present aeon (αἰων οὑτος, aiōn houtos) began with the first coming of Christ, so that now we live in the last days or the last hour (1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 1:2; 9:26; 1 John 2:18) and the aeon to come (αἰων μελλων, aiōn mellōn) starts with his second coming (Matt. 19:28–29; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; 20:35; 1 Cor. 15:23; Heb. 2:5; etc.). And this age to come (aiōn mellōn) begins with the day of the Lord (ἡμερα του κυριου, hēmera tou kyriou), that is, the time in which Christ appears, raises the dead, executes judgment, and renews the world. In the New Testament this period is never represented as lasting long. Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:52, for example, that the transformation of believers still living and the resurrection of believers who have died will occur in a moment, "in the twinkling of an eye" (cf. 1 Thess. 4:15–17). The resurrection and the last judgment are intimately associated as in a single act (Luke 14:14; 2 Cor. 4:14; Rev. 20:11–13). Judgment is fixed on a day (Matt. 10:15; 11:22; etc.) and even on an hour (Rev. 14:7). But this last term is proof that Scripture is in no way minded to fit all the events associated with Christ's parousia precisely into a time frame of twenty-four hours or sixty minutes: the word "hour" (ὡρα, hōra, originally "season") often refers to a much longer period of time than an hour of sixty minutes (Matt. 26:45; John 4:21; 5:25; 16:2, 32; Rom. 13:11; 1 John 2:18). The events that are destined to occur in the parousia of Christ are so comprehensive in scope that they are bound to take considerable time. The inventions of the past century—for the purpose of mutual contact, the exercise of community, hearing and seeing things at a great distance—have shrunk distances to a minimum; and it is likely that they are a mere beginning and prophecy of what will be discovered in the centuries ahead. The doctrine of the last things certainly has to reckon with all these things. Still, such events as the appearance of Christ so that all will see him, the resurrection of all the dead and the transformation of those still living, the rendering of judgment on all people according to their deeds, and the burning and renewal of the world—these are such immense occurrences that they can only take place over a certain period of time.

The Resurrection of the Body

The first event that follows the appearance of Christ is the resurrection of the dead. This event is not the result of an evolution of bodies in general or of the resurrection body implanted in believers by regeneration and sacrament in particular but the effect of an omnipotent, creative act of God (Matt. 22:29; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:38; 2 Cor. 1:9). The Father specifically carries out this work by the Son, whom he has "granted … to have life in himself" (John 5:26; 6:27, 39, 44; 1 Cor. 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:14; 1 Thess. 4:14). He is the resurrection and the life, the firstborn of the dead (John 11:25; Acts 26:23; 1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5), and must of necessity, therefore, bring about the resurrection of his own (John 6:39–40; 1 Cor. 15:20–23, 47–49). Undoubtedly Scripture teaches a general resurrection, a resurrection not only of believers but also of unbelievers and of all human beings (Dan. 12:2; Matt. 5:29–30; 10:28; John 5:29; Acts 24:15; Rev. 20:12–13), and attributes this resurrection to Christ as well (John 5:29). But it very rarely speaks of this general resurrection, the reason being that it is very differently related to Christ than the resurrection of believers. The resurrection of the dead in general is only obliquely a fruit of the work of Christ. It has become a necessity only because a temporal death has occurred; and this temporal death is separated from eternal death by God's gracious intervention. Originally the punishment of sin was death in its full scope and severity. But because, out of the fallen human race, God chose for himself a community for eternal life, he immediately delayed temporal death already in the case of Adam and Eve, allowed them to reproduce themselves from generation to generation, and only at the end of the ages consigns those who have disobeyed his law and his gospel to eternal perdition. The general resurrection, therefore, serves only to restore in all human beings the temporary rupture of the bond between soul and body—a rupture that occurred only with a view toward grace in Christ—to place them all before the judgment seat of God as human beings, in soul and body, and to let them hear the verdict from his mouth. The Father also brings about this general resurrection through Christ, because he gave not only life to the Son but also the authority to execute judgment, and this judgment must strike the whole person, in both soul and body (John 5:27–29).

The resurrection of the dead in general, therefore, is primarily a judicial act of God. But for believers this act is filled with abundant consolation. In Scripture, the resurrection of the believing community is everywhere in the foreground, so much so that sometimes the resurrection of all human beings is even left out of consideration or deliberately omitted (Job 19:25–27; Ps. 73:23–26; Isa. 26:19–20; Ezek. 37; Hos. 6:2; 13:14; Mark 12:25; 2 Cor. 5; Phil. 3:11; 1 Thess. 4:16). This is the real, the true resurrection won directly by Christ, for it is not just a reunion of soul and body, but also an act of vivification, a renewal. It is an event in which believers, united in soul and body, enter into communion with Christ and are being re-created after God's image (Rom. 8:11, 29; Phil. 3:21). For that reason Paul has the resurrection of believers coincide with the transformation of those who are left alive. The latter will have no advantage over the former, for the resurrection will take place prior to the transformation, and together they will go forth to meet the Lord in the air (1 Cor. 15:51–52; 2 Cor. 5:2, 4; 1 Thess. 4:15–17).

In this resurrection the identity of the resurrection body with the body that has died will be preserved. In the case of the resurrections that occur in the Old and New Testaments, the dead body is reanimated. Jesus arose with the same body in which he suffered on the cross and which was laid in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. At the time of Jesus's death many bodies of the saints were raised and came forth from their tombs (Matt. 27:52). In the resurrection of the last day, all who are in the tombs will hear Jesus's voice and come forth (John 5:28–29). According to Rev. 20:13, the dead will return to earth from the tombs, from the sea, from the realm of the dead and hades. And Paul teaches that the resurrection body proceeds from the body that has died, just as from the grain that has been sown God raises up new grain (1 Cor. 15:36ff.).

In the Christian religion this identity of the resurrection body with the body that was laid aside at death is of great significance. In this respect it is, in the first place, diametrically opposed to all dualistic theories according to which the body is merely an incidental dwelling place or prison of the soul. The essence of a human being consists above all in the most intimate union of soul and body in a single personality. The soul by nature belongs to the body, and the body by nature belongs to the soul. Although the soul does not itself create the body, it nevertheless has its own body. The continuity of an individual human being is maintained as much in the identity of the body as in the identity of the soul.

In the second place, Christ's redemption is not a second, new creation but a re-creation. Things would have been much simpler if God had destroyed the entire fallen world and replaced it with a completely new one. But it was his good pleasure to raise the fallen world up again and to free from sin the same humanity that sinned. This deliverance consists in the reality that Christ delivers his believing community from all sin and from all the consequences of sin,2 and therefore causes it to completely triumph over death as well. Death is the last enemy to be annihilated. And the power of Christ is revealed in the fact that he not only gives eternal life to his own but in consequence also raises them on the last day. The rebirth by water and Spirit finds its completion in the rebirth of all things (Matt. 19:28). Spiritual redemption from sin is only fully completed in bodily redemption at the end of time. Christ is a complete Savior: just as he first appeared to establish the kingdom of heaven in the hearts of believers, so he will one day come again to give it visible shape and make his absolute power over sin and death incontrovertibly manifest before all creatures and bring about its acknowledgment. "Corporeality is the end of the ways of God" (Leiblichkeit ist das Ende der Wege Gottes).

Directly connected with this truth is the care of the dead. Cremation is not to be rejected because it is assumed to limit the omnipotence of God and make the resurrection an impossibility. Nevertheless, it is of pagan origin; it was never a custom in Israel or in Christian nations, and it militates against Christian mores. Burial, on the other hand, is much more nearly in harmony with Scripture, creed, history, and liturgy; with the doctrine of the image of God that is also manifest in the body; with the doctrine of death as a punishment for sin; and with the respect that is due to the dead and the resurrection on the last day. Christians do not, like the Egyptians, artificially preserve corpses; nor do they mechanically destroy them, as many people desire today. But they entrust them to the earth's bosom and let them rest until the day of the resurrection.3

The Christian church and Christian theology, accordingly, vigorously maintained the identity of the resurrection body with the body that had died. It frequently swung over to another extreme and not only confessed the resurrection of the flesh but even at times taught that in the resurrection the totality of matter (totalitas materiae) that once belonged to a body was assembled by God from all corners of the earth and brought back, in the same manner and measure as was once there, to the various parts of the body.4 But this notion is open to serious objections.

First, it leads to a variety of subtle and curious inquiries that are of no value for the doctrine of the resurrection. The question that is then pursued is whether the hair and the nails, the blood and the gall, the semen and the urine, the intestines and the genitals will all rise again and be composed of the same—in number and kind—atoms of which they were composed in this life. In the case of the physically handicapped, people who lacked one or more parts, and in the case of children who died in infancy and sometimes even before birth, this idea led to no little embarrassment. In all these and similar cases, whether they wanted to or not, people had to resort to the assumption that resurrection bodies would be augmented with components that did not belong to them earlier. Hence the resurrection cannot consist in a return to and the vivification of "the totality of matter."

Second, physiology teaches that the human body, like all organisms, is subject to a constant process of metabolism, so that after a period of seven years not a single particle would still be present of those that made up the substance of the body before that time. The chemicals of which our bodies consist, like oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and so on, are the same as those that are found in other creatures around us, but they constantly change. This change is sufficient proof that the identity of human bodies cannot consist in that they are always composed of the same chemicals in number. It is enough that they consist of the same chemicals in kind.

Third, this is reinforced by the many kinds of metamorphoses that nature exhibits in all its domains. As a result of the impact of air, water, heat, and the like, plants are transformed into peat and coal, carbons into diamond, clay into clay stone, and rock into fertile soil. In the plant and animal world, within the limits of the various species, there is endless variety. And during the time of its existence, every organism undergoes a series of changes. The maggot becomes a fly; every larva passes from an undeveloped into a more developed state; an embryo passes through various stages and then arrives at extrauterine existence; the caterpillar becomes a pupa and then a butterfly, and so on. We do not know what it is that remains the same under all these metamorphoses. Both matter and form change. In the whole organism there seems to be nothing stable. Still the identity is maintained, an identity that is therefore independent of the coarse mass of materials, its transformation, and its quantity.

If we now relate these facts to what Scripture teaches us about the resurrection, we see a chance to maintain the substantial unity as well as the qualitative distinction between the present and the future body. For strictly speaking, Scripture does not teach the resurrection of the flesh, but of the body. From the resurrections Scripture reports and from the resurrection of Christ, we may indeed—not as far as the form and manner is concerned but as to the essence of it—draw conclusions about the resurrection of the dead in the last days. For in the case of all these resurrections, the body still existed as a whole, and Christ's body had not even been given over to corruption (Acts 2:31). But the bodies of those who rise in the parousia are totally decomposed and scattered in all sorts of ways and have passed into other creatures. In this case we can hardly speak of flesh in a literal sense, for flesh is always animated. That which is no longer alive and animated therefore also ceases to be flesh and returns to dust (Gen. 3:19). Job can indeed say—assuming now that this translation is correct—that from his flesh he will see God (19:26), and after his resurrection Jesus can testify that a spirit has no flesh and bones as he had (Luke 24:39).

However, this is still not sufficient to prove the resurrection of the flesh in the strict sense of this word. For though the flesh of which Job's body consisted was indeed the substratum for the resurrection body, it did not for that reason form the substance of it. And Jesus arose with the same body in which he died and which had not even seen corruption, and he remained moreover in a transitional state up until his ascension, so that he could still eat food as well. Paul certainly teaches very clearly that flesh and blood, being perishable, cannot inherit the kingdom of God, which is imperishable (1 Cor. 15:50). Holsten, Holtzmann, and others have altogether mistakenly inferred from this that, according to Paul, the deceased body does not rise at all, and that the actual resurrection occurs already at the time of a person's death. For the apostle expressly attests to his faith in the bodily resurrection and defends it against those in the church of Corinth who denied it, both in the case of Jesus and that of believers. And he is also thoroughly convinced that the very same body that is laid in the grave is raised again in the resurrection. At the same time he asserts that the resurrection is not a rehabilitation but a reformation.5 The body rises, not as a body of flesh and blood—weak, perishable, mortal—but as a body that is clothed in imperishability and glory. While the body composed of flesh and blood is the seed from which the resurrection body springs (1 Cor. 15:35–38), there is nevertheless a big difference between the two. Even on earth there is a lot of difference in kinds of "flesh," in the case of organic beings, and in "substance," in the case of inorganic creatures (vv. 39–41). Similarly, there is an important difference between the present body and the future body, as is evident from the contrast between Adam and Christ (vv. 42–49). The first is a natural body (σωμα ψυχικον, sōma psychikon) composed of flesh and blood, a body that is subject to change and animated by a soul (ψυχη, psychē), but the latter is a spiritual body (σωμα πνευματικον, sōma pneumatikon). Though it is a true body, it is no longer controlled by a soul but by the spirit (πνευμα, pneuma). It is no longer composed of flesh and blood; it is above the sex life (Matt. 22:30) and the need for food and drink (1 Cor. 6:13). In these respects it is distinguished even from the body that humans possessed before the fall; it is immortal, imperishable, spiritualized, and glorified (1 Cor. 15:42ff.; Phil. 3:21).

Therefore, according to Paul, the identity of the resurrection body with the body entrusted to the earth is independent of body mass and its constant change. All organisms, including human bodies, are composed of the same materials in kind, not in number. And therefore it is absolutely not necessary for the resurrection body to consist of the same atoms in terms of number as those of which it consisted when it was laid in the grave. But for the resurrection body's identity with the flesh-and-blood body laid in the grave, it is required that it have the same organization and shape, the same basic configuration and type, which marked it here as the body of a specific person. In all the metamorphoses to which all creatures are subject, their identity and continuity are preserved. While after death the bodies of humans may disintegrate and, in terms of their material mass, pass into all sorts of other organisms, on earth something remains of them that constitutes the substratum of the resurrection body. Just what that is we do not know and will never be able to discover. But the oddness of this fact vanishes the moment we consider that the ultimate components of things are totally unknown to us. Even the most minute atom is still amenable to analysis. Chemical analysis continues endlessly but never reaches the utterly simple. Still, in the case of all organisms and therefore also in the case of the human body, there has to be something that keeps its identity in the ever-ongoing process of metamorphosis. Then what is so absurd about believing that such an "organic mold" or "pattern of individuality" of the body remains even after death to serve as "seed" for the resurrection body? For, according to Scripture, it is a fact that the resurrection body does not, along with the blessed, come down from heaven, nor is it composed of nonmaterial (geestelijke) or celestial elements. The resurrection body does not come from heaven but from the earth. It is not a self-generated product of the spirit (pneuma) or the soul (psychē) but arises from the body that was laid in the grave at death. Accordingly, it is not spiritual in the sense that its substance is spirit (pneuma), but it is and remains material. That matter, however, is no longer organized into perishable flesh and blood but into a glorified body.6

The Judgment

After the resurrection comes the judgment, an event pictured in the Old Testament as a victory of the Messiah over all Israel's enemies but described in the New Testament more spiritually as a judicial work of Christ in which he judges and sentences all people in accordance with the law God gave them. The first time, to be sure, Jesus came on earth, not to judge the world, but to save it (John 3:17; 12:47). Still, immediately at his appearance he produced a judgment (κρισις, krisis) whose purpose and result is that those who do not see can see, and that those who see may become blind (3:19–20; 9:39). As Son of Man Jesus continually exercises judgment when, to those who believe already, he grants eternal life here on earth and allows the wrath of God to continue to rest on those who do not believe (3:36; 5:32–38). Undoubtedly there is, therefore, an internal spiritual judgment at work, a crisis that is realized from generation to generation. It is an immanent judgment this side of the beyond that takes place in the consciences of human beings. Here on earth faith and unbelief already bear their fruit and bring their reward. Just as faith is followed by Justification and peace with God, so unbelief leads to a progressive darkening of the mind and hardening of the heart and a yielding to all kinds of unrighteousness. Indeed, even apart from the antithesis between faith and unbelief, virtue and vice each bears its own fruit. Also in the natural life good and evil bring their own reward, not only in the excusing or accusing voice of conscience, but also in the external prosperity or adversity often associated with them. Scripture and history vie with each other in teaching that blessing and curse, compassion and anger, signs of favor and judgment alternate in the lives of people and nations. There is great truth in the poet Schiller's saying that "the history of the world is the judgment of the world" (die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht).

Still, though in part this saying is true, it is also false. In origin it is pantheistic, not theistic, and undermines all judgment instead of confirming and honoring it. For if the history of the world is the judgment of the world, it totally ceases to be a judgment and becomes a natural process. This natural process is not at all concerned about the awesome contrast between good and evil and forces it back, and that only for a time, into the hidden recesses of the conscience. For then there is no longer a God who can make the natural order subservient to the moral order. All that remains is the power of nature, which controls the entire physical world and soon shrinks to a minimum and eliminates the restricted domain that had initially been reserved for the moral rule of the good. For the good is not a power that can withstand the power of nature if it lacks grounding in an omnipotent God, who is the Creator of both the natural and the moral orders. Against this, indeed, pantheism always objects that, after all, the good should be done for its own sake and not from a hope of reward or fear of punishment.

But the desire of the soul for the triumph of the good, the victory of justice, has nothing at all in common with the self-centered wish for earthly happiness and the satisfaction of the senses. On the contrary, though Scripture takes account of the reality that humans are sensuous beings and holds before their eyes a reward that is "great in heaven" [Matt. 5:12], that reward is always subordinate to the honor of God's name and is secured by Christ along with the good works in which believers walk [Eph. 2:10]. It is precisely the devout who with eager longing await the day in which God will glorify his name before the eyes of all creatures, and in their cause God brings about the triumph of his own over all opposition. And this desire becomes all the stronger as the blood that cries out for vengeance runs over the earth in wider and deeper streams, as injustice triumphs, as wickedness increases, as falsehood flourishes, and as Satan's domain expands and rises up against the realm of righteousness. All of history cries out for world judgment. The whole creation longs for it. All people witness to it. The martyrs in heaven cry out for it with a loud voice. The believing community prays for the coming of Christ. And Christ himself, the Alpha and the Omega, says: "See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work" [Rev. 22:12]. So, however firmly Scripture—especially in the Gospel of John—recognizes spiritual judgment that is operative throughout history, it nevertheless speaks of a final judgment as well, the judgment that brings about the triumph of the kingdom of Christ over all unrighteousness. The history of the world may be a judgment of the world, but the judgment of the world will take place at the end of time, when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead.

In this connection, Scripture repeatedly attributes this judgment to the Father (Matt. 18:35; 2 Thess. 1:5; Heb. 11:6; James 4:12; 1 Pet. 1:17; 2:23; Rev. 20:11–12). Still he accomplishes this work through Christ, to whom all judgment has been given, whom he has appointed as judge (John 5:22, 27; Acts 10:42; 17:31; Rom. 14:9), and who will therefore summon all human beings before his judgment seat and judge them according to what they have done (Matt. 25:32; Rom. 14:9–13 KJV; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Tim. 4:1, 8; 1 Pet. 4:5; Rev. 19:11–21). For Christ is the Son of Man who already precipitated a crisis by his appearance, continues it in history, and completes it at the end of time. Their relationship to him decides the eternal weal or woe of human beings. In his judgment of the living and the dead, he celebrates his highest triumph and realizes the consummation of his kingdom and the total subjection of all his enemies. For that reason the main issue in the final judgment is that of faith or unbelief. For faith in Christ is the work of God par excellence (John 6:29; 1 John 3:23). Those who believe do not come into judgment (John 5:24); those who do not believe are already condemned and remain under God's wrath (John 3:18, 36).

Therefore, the standard in the final judgment will in the first place be the gospel (John 12:48); but that gospel is not opposed to, and cannot even be conceived apart from, the law. The requirement to believe, after all, is itself grounded in the law, and the gospel is the restoration and fulfillment of the law. In the final judgment, therefore, all the works performed by people and recorded in the books before God are considered as well (Eccles. 12:14; 2 Cor. 5:10; Eph. 6:8; 1 Pet. 1:17; Rev. 20:12; 22:12). Those works, after all, are expressions and products of the principle of life that lives in the heart (Matt. 7:17; 12:33; Luke 6:44) and encompass everything effected by humans, not in the intermediate state but in their bodies, not the deeds alone (Matt. 25:35ff.; Mark 9:41–42; Luke 6:35; 14:13–14; 1 Cor. 3:8; 1 Thess. 4:6; etc.) but also the words (Matt. 12:36) and the secret purposes of the heart (Rom. 2:16; 1 Cor. 4:5). For nothing remains hidden and everything will be revealed (Matt. 6:4, 6, 18; 10:26; Eph. 5:11–14; 1 Tim. 5:24–25). In the final judgment, therefore, the norm will be the entire Word of God in both its parts: law and gospel.

But in connection with this, Scripture nevertheless clearly states that consideration will be given to the measure of revelation that any given person has received. Those who knew the will of the Lord and did not do it will be given "a more severe beating" (Luke 12:47). It will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for Jerusalem and Capernaum (Matt. 10:15; 11:22, 24; Mark 6:11; Luke 10:12, 14; Heb. 2:3). Those who did not hear the gospel are not judged by it but by the law. The Gentiles who did not know the Mosaic law but sinned against the law known to them by nature perish apart from the Mosaic law, whereas Jews are judged above all by this law (Rom. 2:12). Although Scripture views the judgment as extending to all humans without exception (Matt. 25:32; Acts 17:31; Rom. 2:6; 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Tim. 4:1; Rev. 20:12), it nevertheless makes a distinction between the nations that knew the gospel and finally produced anti-Christianity, and the other nations that never heard of Christ and therefore first learn of him at his parousia. It further speaks in particular of the judgment of evil angels, and of the role the good angels and believers play in the final judgment.

It is not at all easy to gain a clear picture of that judgment. There is certainly not exclusively an internal and spiritual event occurring solely in the human conscience. It is definitely a judgment that is realized externally as well and is visible to all creatures. However much the image and the reality may be intertwined, the appearance of Christ, the resurrection, and everything associated with the judgment are drawn too realistically to give us the freedom to spiritualize everything. That being the case, the execution of this judgment also requires a place and a space of time, for Scripture prompts us to think of it as occurring successively. The angels accompany Christ at his coming on the clouds, to be of service to him in the execution of the sentence. They gather the righteous, separate the evil from the righteous, and drive them away (Matt. 13:30, 49; 24:31). He is surrounded, moreover, by the blessed (1 Thess. 3:13; 4:16; 2 Thess. 1:6–10; Jude 14; Rev. 17:14; 19:14). Following the resurrection of the believers who died and the transformation of those who remain alive, they are together caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4:17). Just as Christ's resurrection and ascension were disjoined and even separated by a period of forty days, so it is not impossible that the resurrection and transformation of believers at the end of time will not yet, at one stroke, confer on them the full glory that they will receive after the renewal of the world in a new heaven and a new earth. However this be, the resurrection and transformation of believers includes, as it did for Christ, their Justification.

Scripture does indeed say that all humans without distinction, hence also believers, must appear before the judgment seat of Christ. But it also attests that those who believe in him are not condemned and do not come into judgment, for they already have eternal life (John 3:18; 5:24); that the believers who have died are already with Christ in heaven and clothed in long white garments (2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23; Rev. 6:11; 7:9, 14); and that Christ is coming to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at among all who believe (2 Thess. 1:10). Before pronouncing his verdict on the evil angels, on the anti-Christian world, and on barbaric peoples, Christ has already positioned the sheep at his right hand and is surrounded by his angels and his saints. This is also evident from 1 Cor. 6:2–3, where Paul expressly states that the saints will judge the world and the angels. This statement may not be watered down into an act of endorsement by believers of the judgment Christ pronounces over the world and the angels, but as the context shows, specifically indicates that the saints will participate in [Christ's] judgment of the world and the angels. For that matter, Jesus already promised his twelve disciples that they would sit with him on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:30). And around the throne of God, John saw thrones in heaven, on which were seated the elders of the church (Rev. 4:4; 11:16; 20:4, 6). For Christ and his church are one: that in which the world and the angels have wronged the believing community is counted as having been done against him (Matt. 25:40, 45; Mark 9:41–42). This judgment of Christ and his church is even extended to the good angels (1 Cor. 6:3), for the angels are ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation (Heb. 1:14). The angels will, therefore, receive a place in the future kingdom of God in accordance with the service they have rendered in relation to Christ and his church. Accordingly, in John's vision Christ, surrounded by his armies, goes out to meet the anti-Christian forces (Rev. 19:11–21). The church triumphant takes part in the royal reign of Christ (20:4–6). And Christ finally annihilates all opposition when he judges the nations who are at the four corners of the earth (20:7–10).7

The Place of Punishment

In the New Testament the place to which the wicked are consigned is called Gehenna. The Hebrew גֵּי הִנֹּם (gê hinnōm) was originally the name for the valley of Hinnom, which was located southwest of Jerusalem and, according to Josh. 15:8 and 18:16, served as the boundary line between two tribes. Under Ahaz and Manasseh this valley became a site for the worship of Molech, in whose honor children were slain and burned (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6; 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6; Jer. 32:34–35). Under Josiah this place was destroyed, therefore, and declared unclean by the priests (2 Kings 23:10). Jeremiah prophesied that here a terrible bloodbath would be inflicted on the Israelites, and the Topheth valley would be called the Valley of Slaughter (Jer. 7:32; 19:6). And the pseudepigraphic book of 1 Enoch predicted that in this valley the wicked would be gathered up for judgment. For this reason the name "Gehinnom" was later transferred to the place of punishment for the wicked after death. According to others, however, the transfer had another reason. According to later Jews, after the valley of Hinnom had been destroyed by Josiah, it was used for dumping and burning all kinds of trash. Just as Gan [Hebrew for "garden"] Eden referred to the place where the righteous lived after death, Gehinnom became the name of the place to which the unclean and the ungodly were consigned to suffer punishment in the everlasting fire.

Fire, for that matter, was from ancient times the revelation and symbol of the anger and wrath of the Lord. Israel's God is a consuming fire, an eternal flame (Deut. 4:24; 9:3; Isa. 33:14). He spoke to the children of Israel from the midst of the fire (Deut. 4:12, 33; 5:4, 22–26; 9:10; 10:4; cf. Exod. 3:2, 4). His wrath is a red-hot fire flaming forth from his nostrils (Pss. 18:8; 79:5; 89:46; Jer. 4:4). Fire coming forth from the presence of the Lord consumes the offering (Lev. 9:24). By fire he destroyed Nadab and Abihu (10:2), complainers from among his people (Num. 11:1; Ps. 106:18), the descendants of Korah (Num. 16:35), and the regiments of fifty sent out against Elijah (2 Kings 1:10ff.). And one day he will come in a blaze of fire to do justice on earth and to punish the wicked (Deut. 32:22; Pss. 11:6; 83:14–15; 97:3; 140:10; Isa. 30:33; 31:9; 66:15–16, 24; Jer. 4:4; 15:14; 17:4; Joel 2:30; Amos 1:4ff.)—a fire burning to the depths of Sheol (Deut. 32:22), a fire that will never be quenched (Isa. 66:24) and that burns forever (Jer. 17:4).

This representation [of judgment] then passed into the New Testament. Gehenna, the place of punishment after the day of judgment, is distinct from hades (ἁδης, hadēs), the underworld (φυλακη, phylakē), and the pit (ἀβυσσος, abyssos) but identical with the furnace of fire (καμινος του πυρος, kaminos tou pyros; Matt. 13:42, 50) and the lake of fire (λιμνη του πυρος, limnē tou pyros; Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14–15; 21:8). It is a place destined for the beast from the pit and for the false prophet (19:20), for Satan and his angels (20:10), for Death and Hades (20:14), and for all the wicked (20:15; 21:8). And these are all hurled into it after the resurrection (Matt. 5:29–30; 10:28), and after the final judgment (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14–15; 21:8). Before that time hades, the prison house (φυλακη, phylakē; 1 Pet. 3:19; Rev. 20:7), or the pit (ἀβυσσος, abyssos) were their abode, and the punishment of everlasting fire or the dimness of the outer darkness was still reserved for them (Matt. 8:29–32; 25:41, 46; 2 Pet. 2:17; Jude 13). Burning in that Gehenna is everlasting, unquenchable fire (Matt. 18:8; Mark 9:43–44, 48). This is where the worm that does not die keeps gnawing (Mark 9:44, 46, 48 KJV) and the torment never ends (Matt. 25:46; 2 Thess. 1:9; Rev. 14:11). It is a Gehenna or furnace of fire (Matt. 5:22; 13:42, 50; 18:9) and at the same time a place of extreme, outer darkness (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; 2 Pet. 2:17; Jude 13; cf. Deut. 5:22; Ps. 97:2–3). It is located "outside" (Rev. 22:15), in the depths, so that one is thrown down into it (Matt. 5:29–30; Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14–15).

This place is far from the marriage table of the Lamb (Matt. 8:11–12; 22:13), far from fellowship with God and with Christ (7:23; 25:41; Luke 13:27–28; 2 Thess. 1:9); it is rather in the company of Satan and his angels (Matt. 25:41; Rev. 20:10, 15). The wrath of God in all its terror is manifested there (Rom. 2:5–8; 9:22; 1 Thess. 1:10; Heb. 10:31; Rev. 6:16–17). Consequently, Gehenna is not only a place of privation but also of sorrow and pain, in both soul and body; a place of punishment (κολασις, kolasis; Matt. 25:46; Rev. 14:10–11), of weeping (κλαυθμος, klauthmos) and gnashing of teeth (βρυγμος των ὀδοντων, brygmos tōn odontōn; Matt. 8:12; 13:42; etc.), of anguish and distress (θλιψις, thlipsis; and στενοχωρια, stenochōria; Rom. 2:9; 2 Thess. 1:6), of destruction (ἀπωλεια, apōleia; Matt. 7:13; Rom. 9:22; Phil. 1:28; 3:19; 2 Pet. 3:7; Rev. 17:8, 11), of corruption (φθορα, phthora; Gal. 6:8), and of ruin (ὀλεθρος, olethros; 1 Thess. 5:3; 2 Thess. 1:9; 1 Tim. 6:9). Gehenna is the realm of the second death (Rev. 2:11; 20:6, 14–15; 21:8).

On this firm scriptural basis, the Christian church built a doctrine of the eternity of hellish punishment. Accordingly, in theology as well as in the pulpit, in poetry as well as in the graphic arts, people frequently vied with each other in offering graphic descriptions and realistic portrayals of the pains experienced in the eternal fire in both soul and body.

Alternatives to Eternal Punishment

Nevertheless, from time to time objections were raised against this doctrine. After the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century introduced a milder assessment of sin and crime, abolished instruments of torture, moderated punishments, and aroused a sense of humaneness everywhere, there also arose a very different view of the punishments of hell. Many people either altered their idea of them or rejected them altogether. The grounds on which people argue against the eternity of hellish punishment always remain the same:

a. Eternal punishment is incompatible with the goodness, love, and compassion of God and makes him a tyrant who takes pleasure in inflicting pain and torment and who prepares praise for himself out of the everlasting moans of millions of unfortunate creatures.

b. Eternal punishment is incompatible with the justice of God, since it is unrelated and in no way proportionate to the sin in question, which however appalling, is nevertheless limited and finite in character. It is inconceivable that God, who is perfect love and supreme justice, will punish human beings, even if they have sinned a thousand years, with everlasting torment.

c. Such eternal punishment is also unimaginable and inconceivable. Scripture speaks of fire, a worm, and darkness, but these are all images. Taken literally, they are mutually exclusive. But aside from this, what is the value of an eternal punishment that has no purpose other than to torment the sinner for ever and ever? What is its utility for those who suffer it, since in the nature of the case it excludes the possibility of true repentance and only impels them to keep sinning? What glory does it bring to God's name if it does not overcome and destroy sin but only perpetuates it forever? And how is it possible that the unredeemed continually harden themselves under the burden of such an eternal punishment without ever coming to repentance and self-humiliation before God?

d. Scripture, accordingly, does not teach an eternal and endless punishment in hell. It does indeed speak of eternal pain and the like, but here as elsewhere the word "eternal" does not mean "endless" but refers to a period of time the limit of which eludes our perception or calculation: a thing is eternal (αἰωνιος, aiōnios) if it exceeds a longer or shorter age (αἰων, aiōn). This is even reinforced by the fact that "eternal" (αἰωνιος, aiōnios), used in the positive sense of the benefits of salvation, say, of life, especially denotes an inner quality by which all these saving benefits are represented as being nonperishable. By contrast, the condition of the lost is described in terms of "destruction" (ἀπωλεια, apōleia), "corruption" (φθορα, phthora), "ruin" (ὀλεθρος, olethros), and "death" (θανατος, thanatos), which suggests that in this condition they cannot continue to exist forever but will either be utterly annihilated or at some point totally restored.

e. For the latter [hint of restoration], Scripture offers hope when it teaches that Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (Col. 1:19–20; 1 John 2:2), and that God desires all humans to be saved that way (1 Tim. 2:4; 4:10). "For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ" (Rom. 5:18; 1 Cor. 15:22). Now God gathers up all things under Christ as head (Eph. 1:10), so that someday every knee will bow before Christ (Phil. 2:10) and God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). "God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all" (Rom. 11:32).

If for now we ignore pantheism and materialism, which deny all immortality and eternity, then on the basis of the above considerations, the following three hypotheses can be constructed with regard to the final end of the ungodly.

In the first place there are those who teach that a possibility of repentance remains open, not only in the intermediate state right up until the final judgment,8 but also thereafter and for all eternity. Whether there is a hell and eternal punishment, therefore, depends totally on the persons involved and their free will. If they persist in opposing the call to conversion, they will dig themselves ever deeper and more firmly into sin and prolong their punishment. However, since the preaching of faith and repentance never stops and the human will continues to be free, an eternal punishment in hell becomes extremely improbable and people rather flatter themselves with the hope that in the end all will repent and enter into eternal life. Hence in Scripture eternal pain only means that those who wait so long before repenting always retain the memory of their stubborn recalcitrance and will eternally rank behind those who believed the gospel in this life. What this hypothetical universalism comes down to, therefore, is a theory of ongoing purgation and a renewal of the doctrine of the migration of the soul. In the main, the difference between them is only that metempsychosis has this purgation occur in the present world (Diesseits) whereas hypothetical universalism situates it in the next (Jenseits). This doctrine found acceptance especially among eighteenth-century rationalists, but many contemporary theologians defend it as well.9

This sentiment of an ongoing repentance and purgation naturally leads to the theory of the so-called universalists, who think that in the end all creatures will participate in eternal salvation and glory. That which is desired and hoped for in the former is expected as certain and proclaimed as dogma by the latter. The doctrine of the return of all things into God already occurs in Indian and Greek philosophy; from there it passed into Gnosticism and Neoplatonism and was for the first time represented in Christian theology by Origen. While Origen indeed repeatedly mentions an eternal punishment in hell, he regards it only as a practical doctrine necessary for the ignorant but viewed very differently by the "knowers" (Gnostics). For, according to Origen, all spirits were originally created alike by God, but the acts of the free will produce unlikeness and bring about the transfer of human souls to a material world for the purpose of purgation and union with bodies. This process of purgation also continues after death and the final judgment until, from and through the greatest possible diversity, this likeness again emerges and all spirits return to God in the same condition in which they were originally with him. However, because the free will ever remains the same, it can equally well return from the evil to the good as from the good to the evil, and so there is a continual alternation between apostasy and the restoration of all things, an endless creation and annihilation of the material world.10 In antiquity this notion of the restoration of all things found acceptance with Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Didymus, Diodorus of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and others.11 In the Middle Ages, Scotus Erigena, Amalric of Bena, and the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit adhered to it. After the Reformation, it was held by Denck and numerous Anabaptists, Jane Leade, J. W. Petersen, Ludwig Gerhard, F. C. Oetinger, Michael Hahn, Jung-Stilling, Swedenborg, and so on; and in modern times by Schleiermacher and many others.12

A much better reception, however, was accorded a third opinion known as conditional immortality. Although an earlier theology very frequently spoke of immortality in a spiritual sense as a gift secured by Christ, still hardly a soul thought of denying the natural immortality of the soul. The Socinians, under the influence of their abstract supernaturalism, were the first to teach that souls were not by nature immortal but only became immortal by a gift of God in the case of obedience. From this it followed that, by virtue of a natural perishability, the wicked and the demons must one day cease to exist. Although Socinus did not yet say this clearly, his followers taught in plain terms that the second death consisted in annihilation. And according to Crell, Schmalz, and others, this event took place not at or shortly after death but only after the general resurrection and the judgment of the world.13 This doctrine was taken over from the Socinians by Locke, Warburton, Whiston, Dodwell, Walter, and others, and in the nineteenth century by Rothe and Weisse.14 It began to catch on and to gain adherents, however, particularly after it was advocated by Edward White in his Life in Christ.15 This book produced numerous reactions, evoking not only serious dissent but also broad endorsement. Today conditionalism has a great many defenders in all countries.16

The Answer of Scripture

If human sentiment had the final say about the doctrine of eternal punishment, it would certainly be hard to maintain and even today find few defenders. First, it needs to be gratefully acknowledged that since the eighteenth century the idea of humaneness and the sense of human sympathy have had a powerful awakening and have put an end to the cruelty that used to prevail, especially in the field of criminal justice. No one, however, can be blind to the reality that this humanitarian viewpoint also brings its own imbalances and dangers. The mighty turnabout that has occurred can be described in a single sentence: whereas before the mentally ill were treated as criminals, now criminals are regarded as mentally ill. Before that time every abnormality was viewed in terms of sin and guilt; now all ideas of guilt, crime, responsibility, culpability, and the like are robbed of their reality.17 The sense of right and justice, of the violation of law and of guilt, are seriously weakened to the extent that the norm of all these things is not found in God but shifted to the opinions of human beings and society. In the process all certainty and safety is gradually lost. For when the interest of society becomes the deciding factor, not only is every boundary between good and evil wiped out, but also justice runs the danger of being sacrificed to power. "It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed" (John 11:50) then becomes the language of the administration of justice. And the same human sentiment that first pleaded for the humane treatment of a criminal does not shrink, a moment later, from demanding death by torture of the innocent. Hosannas make way for a cross. The voice of the people (vox populi), which is often wrongly revered as the voice of God (vox Dei), recoils from no horrors whatever. And whereas the righteous person still takes account of the needs of his animals, even the soft interior of the wicked, their hearts and minds, is still cruel (Prov. 12:10). Human feeling is no foundation for anything important, therefore, and neither may nor can it be decisive in the determination of law and justice. All appearances notwithstanding, it is infinitely better to fall into the hands of the Lord than into human hands (1 Chron. 21:13). The same applies with respect to eternal punishment in hell.

It must be noted that this doctrine, though it is often depicted in too much realistic detail in the church and in theology, is nevertheless grounded in Scripture. And no one in Scripture speaks of it more often and at greater length than our Lord Jesus Christ, whose depth of human feeling and compassion no one can deny and who was the meekest and most humble of human beings. It is the greatest love that threatens the most severe punishments. Over against the blessedness of eternal life that he acquired for his own stands the disaster of eternal ruin that he announces to the wicked. In the Old Testament both were veiled in shadows and presented in imagery. But in the New Testament it is Christ who opens a vista both into the depths of outer darkness and into the dwellings of eternal light.

That the punishment in this place of outer darkness is eternal is not something one can doubt on the basis of Scripture. It is indeed true that the adjective αἰωνιος, aiōnios (from αἰων, aiōn; Heb. עוֹלָם, ʿôlām, that is, duration of time; the course of a life; the length of a human life; a long, indefinite period of time in the past or future; the present world age, αἰων οὑτος, aiōn houtos; the age to come, αἰων μελλων, aiōn mellōn), very often refers to a period of time that is beyond human calculation but certainly not endless or everlasting. In the New Testament it is also used frequently to describe the entire world dispensation that passed until the appearance of Christ, the period in which the counsel of God was announced by the prophets but not fully revealed (Luke 1:70; Acts 3:21; Rom. 16:25; Col. 1:26; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 1:2). But in the New Testament the word αἰωνιος (aiōnios) functions especially to describe the imperishable nature—a nature not subject to any corruption or decay—of the salvific benefits gained by Christ, and is very often linked with the word "life" (ζωη, zōē)—the eternal life that Christ imparts to everyone who believes. It has its beginning here on earth but will only be fully revealed in the future. It essentially belongs to the age to come (αἰων μελλων, aiōn mellōn; Luke 18:30), is indestructible (John 11:25–26), and is called "eternal," like the building from God (οἰκοδομη ἐκ θεου, oikodomē ek theou; 2 Cor. 5:1), salvation (σωτηρια, sōtēria; Heb. 5:9), redemption (λυτρωσις, lytrōsis; 9:12), the inheritance (κληρονομια, klēronomia; 9:15), the glory (δοξα, doxa; 2 Tim. 2:10), and the kingdom (βασιλεια, basileia; 2 Pet. 1:11), just as God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit are also called "eternal" (Rom. 16:26; Heb. 9:14; 13:8; etc.). Over against this it is stated that the punishment of the wicked will consist in eternal fire (το πυρ το αἰωνιον, to pyr to aiōnion; Matt. 18:8; 25:41; Jude 7), eternal punishment (κολασις αἰωνιος, kolasis aiōnios; Matt. 25:46), eternal destruction (ὀλεθρος αἰωνιος, olethros aiōnios; 2 Thess. 1:9), and eternal judgment (κρισις αἰωνιος, krisis aiōnios; Mark 3:29 KJV). Like eternal life, so by this description also eternal punishment is presented as belonging to the coming age (αἰων μελλων, aiōn mellōn) in which a change of state is no longer possible. Scripture nowhere with a single word indicates or even leaves open the possibility that the state that begins there can still come to an end. And positively it says that the fire there is unquenchable (Matt. 3:12), that the worm does not die (Mark 9:48), that the smoke of torment goes up forever (Rev. 14:11) and continues day and night for all eternity (20:10), and that as eternal pain it contrasts with the eternal life of the righteous (Matt. 25:46). Unbiased exegesis will not find anything here other than eternal, never-ending punishment.

The state of the lost is described as destruction (ἀπωλεια, apōleia; Matt. 7:13), corruption (φθορα, phthora; Gal. 6:8), ruin (ὀλεθρος, olethros; 2 Thess. 1:9), and death (θανατος, thanatos; Rev. 2:11; etc.), which agrees with the fact that, according to the Old and New Testaments, the wicked will be destroyed, eradicated, ruined, put away, cast out, cut off, burned as chaff, and so on. All these expressions are understood by the proponents of conditional immortality in terms of complete annihilation.18 But this view is totally unfounded. Life, in Scripture, is never mere existence, and death is never the same as annihilation. Conditionalists cannot deny this fact with respect to the temporal physical death of humans. Like the Socinians they usually assume that the wicked will continue to exist also after death, either to be annihilated by God after the resurrection and the final judgment, or gradually to wither away and finally to perish physically as well. The latter idea is impossible, both philosophically and scripturally. For sin is not a substance, no material thing (materia), but a form (forma) that presupposes existence; sin does not destroy the existent but steers it in a wrong direction, a direction away from God. And physical death is not merely a natural consequence, but a positive—divinely threatened and executed—punishment of sin. In the event of that death, God does not annihilate human beings but temporarily separates soul and body in order to maintain both and to reunite them at the resurrection.

Scripture clearly and irrefutably teaches human immortality. When conditionalism views the destruction (ἀπωλεια, apōleia) that is the punishment of sin as an annihilation of the human substance, it is confusing the ethical with the physical. And just as God does not annihilate human beings in the first death, so neither does he annihilate them in the second. For in Scripture the latter, too, is described as punishment (Matt. 25:46), weeping and gnashing of teeth (8:12), anguish and distress (Rom. 2:9), never-ending fire (Matt. 18:8), the undying worm (Mark 9:44), and so on, expressions that all assume the existence of the lost. Still their state can be called destruction (ἀπωλεια, apōleia), corruption (φθορα, phthora), ruin (ὀλεθρος, olethros), and death (θανατος, thanatos) because in a moral and spiritual sense they have become total wrecks, and in an absolute sense they lack the fullness of life granted by Christ to believers. Thus the prodigal son is called "dead" (νεκρος, nekros) and "lost" (ἀπολωλες, apolōlōs; Luke 15:24, 32); the Ephesians in their earlier state are described as "dead" (νεκροι, nekroi) through their trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1; 4:18), and the people of the church of Sardis are called "dead" (νεκροι, nekroi; Rev. 3:1; etc.), but no one ever thinks of these three parties as being nonexistent.

The same failure to recognize the ethical character of sin marks the proponents of ἀποκαταστασις (apokatastasis, restoration of all things). The word derives from Acts 3:21, but there, as is universally acknowledged today, it does not at all mean what is now meant by it. Scripture nowhere teaches that one day all humans and even all devils will be saved. Often it indeed uses very universalistic language, but that is because, intensively, Christ's work is of infinite value and benefits the whole world and all of humanity in its organic form of existence. But it unambiguously excludes the idea that all human individuals or even the devils will at some time become citizens in the kingdom of God. The doctrine of the restoration of all things, accordingly, has at all times been taught by only a handful of persons. Even today the theory of conditional immortality has more support among theologians than that of the apokatastasis. Actually, and in any case, this doctrine is of pagan—not of Christian—origin; it is philosophical, not scriptural, in character. Underlying the theory is pantheism, which views all things as proceeding from God and, similarly, of successively returning to him. In this view God is not the lawgiver and judge who will one day judge the world with equity [Ps. 9:8] but an unconscious immanent force that propels all things to the end and will one day recapture all things into himself. Sin, in this view, is not lawlessness (ἀνομια, anomia) but a necessary moment in the evolution of the world. And redemption in Christ is not juridical restoration and ethical renewal but a physical process that controls everything.

In order to appreciate the fact of eternal punishment, it is above all necessary, therefore, to recognize along with Scripture the integrity of the justice of God and the deeply sinful character of sin. Sin is not a weakness, a lack, a temporary and gradually vanishing imperfection, but in origin and essence it is lawlessness (anomia), a violation of the law, rebellion and hostility against God, and the negation of his justice, his authority, even his existence. Granted, sin is finite in the sense that it is committed by a finite creature in a finite period of time, but as Augustine already correctly noted, not the duration of time over which the sin was committed but its own intrinsic nature is the standard for its punishment. "A momentary lapse into carelessness," as the saying goes, "can lead to a lifetime of weeping." The sins of a moment can result in a life of shame and punishment. A person who commits a crime is sometimes given the death penalty and thereby transferred into an irremediable state by an earthly government. God acts the same way: what the death penalty is on earth, the punishment of hell is in the final judgment. He judges and punishes sin in accordance with its intrinsic quality. And that sin is infinite in the sense that it is committed against the Highest Majesty, who is absolutely entitled to our love and worship. God is absolutely and infinitely worthy of our obedience and dedication. The law in which he requires this of us is therefore absolutely binding, and its binding nature is infinitely great. The violation of that law, viewed intensively, is therefore an absolute and infinite evil. Furthermore, the thing to be considered here is not so much the "duration of the sinning" as "the will of the sinner, which is such that it would always wish to sin if it could."19 He who commits the sin is a slave to sin: he will not and cannot do otherwise than sin. It is truly not his own doing when he is denied the opportunity to continue his sinful life. In terms of his interior desire, he would not want anything other than to live forever so that he could sin forever. Who then, looking at the sinful nature of sin, would have the nerve to say that God is unjust if he visits the sin not only with temporal but also with eternal punishments?

As a rule, this argument [against eternal punishment] derived from the justice of God is for that reason advanced somewhat tentatively and hesitantly but is all the more passionately regarded as inconsistent with the goodness and love of God. However, if it is not inconsistent with the justice of God, it is not and cannot be inconsistent with his goodness either. We have no choice at this point. If eternal punishment is unjust, then that condemns it, and one need no longer appeal to God's goodness. If, however, it is consistent with God's justice, then God's goodness remains unscathed: if a thing is just it is also good. The argument against eternal punishment derived from God's goodness therefore, in the manner of Marcion, secretly introduces a conflict between God's justice and his goodness and offers up the former to the latter. But goodness that nullifies justice is no longer true and real goodness. It is mere human weakness and wimpiness and, when projected onto God, an invention of the human brain, one that in no way corresponds to the true and living God who has revealed himself in Scripture as well as in nature. For if eternal punishment is inconsistent with God's goodness, then temporal punishment is inconsistent with it as well. But the latter is a fact no one can deny. Humankind is consumed by God's anger and terrified by his wrath [cf. Ps. 90:7]. Who can square this world's suffering with God's goodness and love? Still it must be possible, for it exists. Now if the existence of immense suffering in this world may not lead us to question God's goodness, then neither may eternal punishment prompt us to deny it. If this world is consistent with God's love, as it is and has to be, then hell is too. For aside from Scripture there is no stronger proof for the existence of hell than the existence of this world, the world from whose misery the features of the [biblical] picture of hell are derived.20

Furthermore, for the person who disputes [the reality of] eternal punishment, there is enormous danger of playing the hypocrite before God. Such a person presents himself as extremely loving, one who in goodness and compassion far outstrips our Lord Jesus Christ. This does not stop this same person, the moment one's own honor is violated, from erupting in fury and calling down on the violator every evil in this life and the life to come. Resentment, hatred, wrath, and vindictiveness arise in the hearts of all human beings against anyone standing in their way. We promote our own honor, but the honor of God is of no concern to us. We stand up for our own rights but let others trample the rights of God into the dirt. Surely this is sufficient evidence that we humans are not suitable judges of the words and actions of God. Nevertheless, in that act of standing up for our own rights and reputation, there is something good. However wrongly applied, there is implicit in it the fact that our rights and reputation are more precious than our goods and life. Slumbering even in the sinner, there is still a deep sense of justice and honor. And when that sense is violated, it is aroused and suppresses all pity. When, in a given conflict between two people or two nations, the issue is one of justice, each party passionately prays that God may bring about the triumph of the right and strike its violators with his judgment. All human beings still have an innate feeling for the saying "Let justice be done though the world perish" (fiat justitia, pereat mundus) and think it reasonable that justice should triumph at the expense of thousands of human lives. In the day of judgment, too, the issue is one of justice, not some private right or other, but justice par excellence, justice in its full import and scope, the justice of God—that God himself may be honored as God in all eternity.

There is, therefore, no doubt that in the day of judgment God will fully vindicate himself in the presence of all his creatures even when he pronounces eternal punishment upon sinners. Now we who know in part also know the horror of sin only in part. But if here already, upon hearing of certain horrors, we consider no punishment severe enough, what then will we think when at the end of time we gain insight into the depths of injustice? And on earth, furthermore, we are always one-sided. Over and over our sense of justice and our compassion clash. We are either too soft or much too severe in our judgment. But in the case of the Lord our God, this is not so and cannot be so. In Christ he has fully revealed his love, a love that is so great precisely because it saves us from the wrath to come and from eternal destruction. Critics of eternal punishment not only fail to do justice to the doom-worthiness of sin, the rigorousness of divine justice; they also infringe on the greatness of God's love and the salvation that is in Christ. If the object had not been salvation from eternal destruction, the price of the blood of God's own Son would have been much too high. The heaven that he won for us by his atoning death presupposes a hell from which he delivered us. The eternal life he imparted to us presupposes an eternal death from which he saved us. The grace and good pleasure of God in which he makes us participants forever presuppose a wrath into which we would otherwise have had to be plunged forever. And for that reason it is this Christ who will one day execute judgment and pronounce his sentence. A human being, a true and complete human being who knows what is in human beings, who is the meekest of human beings, will be the judge of human beings, a judge so just that all will acknowledge his justice, and every knee will bow before him, and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father [Phil. 2:10–11]. In the end God will be recognized as God by all creatures, if not willingly then unwillingly.

This should be enough for us. Inquiries into the location and size of hell, the nature of the fire and the worm, the psychic and physical state of the lost—these lead nowhere because Scripture is silent on these topics. All we know besides the things we have discussed so far is that the punishment of hell does not begin until after the day of judgment; that such punishment is consistently threatened against those who stubbornly resist the truth of God—the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and the liars (Rev. 21:8); and that even so, this punishment differs in the measure of each person's unrighteousness. Scripture nowhere teaches that there will still be room in hell for repentance and forgiveness. The addition in Matt. 12:32 ("either in this age or in the age to come") is intended not to bring out the pardonability of the sin against the Son of Man in the age to come but to underline the absolute unpardonability of the sin against the Holy Spirit. In its essence punishment consists in the maintenance of justice and, after the judgment, serves specifically to requite all persons according to their work, not to purify them. Scripture nevertheless teaches very clearly that there are degrees of punishment. The penalty of damnation (poena damni) is the same, but the penalty of sensation (poena sensus) differs. All will receive according to their works (Matt. 10:15; 11:24; 23:14; 24:51; Luke 10:12, 14; 12:46–47; 2 Cor. 5:10; etc.). And this fact as such still demonstrates something of God's mercy.21 All sin is absolutely opposed to the justice of God, but in punishing it God nevertheless takes account of the relative difference existing between sins. There is infinite diversity also on the other side of the grave.22 For in eternal punishment God's justice always manifests itself in such a way that his goodness and love remain inviolate and can never be justly faulted. The saying that he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone (Lam. 3:33) applies also in hell. The pain he inflicts is not an object of pleasure, either for him or for the blessed in heaven, but a means of glorifying his virtues, and hence [the punishment is] determined in severity and measure by this ultimate goal.23

1 F. W. Weber, System der altsynagogalen palästinischen Theologie (Leipzig: Dörffling & Franke, 1880), 354.

2 Ed. note: Bavinck is speaking eschatologically here, that is, about the final judgment.

3 A. Kuyper, Ons program, 4th rev. ed. (Amsterdam and Pretoria: Höveker & Wormser, 1880), 274–75; K. Sartorius, Die Leichenverbrennung innerhalb der christlichen Kirche (Basel: C. Detloff, 1886); P. G. Groenen, Lijkverbranding ('s Hertogenbosch: Teulings, 1909).

4 Irenaeus, Against Heresies V, 12, 13; Augustine, Enchiridion 26; City of God XX, 4, 13f.; T. Aquinas, Summa theol., III, qu. 75–86.

5 Ed. note: Bavinck draws a distinction here between restauratie (translated "rehabilitation") and reformatie. This distinction, for which he more frequently uses the contrast between restauratie and herstel (re-creation), is used repeatedly by Bavinck to make the important point that the fullness of redemption in Christ is more than a mere repristination of the original created and prefallen status of Adam. Though grace restores rather than abolishes nature, the status gloriae is more excellent than the status integratis. Cf. H. Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, trans. H. Zylstra (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 218–20. For a helpful discussion of Bavinck's understanding of grace's relation to nature, see Jan Veenhof, Revelatie en Inspiratie (Amsterdam: Buijten & Schipperheijn, 1968), 345–65. This section of Veenhof's work has been translated into English by Albert Wolters and published by the Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto, and reprinted as Nature and Grace in Herman Bavinck (Sioux Center, IA: Dordt College Press, 2006).

6 Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh; Augustine, City of God XXII, ch. 12–20; Enchiridion 84–93; P. Lombard, Sent., IV, dist. 43; T. Aquinas, Summa theol., suppl., qu. 82–97; J. H. Oswald, Eschatologie (Paderborn: F. Schöningh, 1869), 262f.; J. Gerhard, Loci theologici, ed. E. Preuss, 9 vols. (Berlin: G. Schlawitz, 1863–75), XXVI, tract 2; J. Quenstedt, Theologia, IV, 576–605; A. Polanus, Syntagma theologiae christianae (Hanover: Aubry, 1624), VI, c. 66; Synopsis purioris theologiae, disp. 51; P. van Mastricht, Theoretica-practica theologia (Utrecht: Appels, 1714), VIII, 4, 6; F. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. G. M. Giger, ed. J. T. Dennison, 3 vols. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1992), XX, qu. 1–3; J. Marckius, Exspectatio gloriae futurae Jesu Christi, II, c. 1–18; C. Vitringa, Doctrina christiana religionis, 8 vols. (Leiden: Joannis le Mair, 1761–86), IV, 109–56; Th. Kliefoth, Christliche Eschatologie (Leipzig: Dörflling & Franke, 1886), 248f.; F. J. Splittgerber, Tod, Fortleben und Auferstehung, 3rd ed. (Halle: Fricke, 1879); F. A. B. Nitzsch, Lehrbuch der evangelischen Dogmatik, 3rd ed. prepared by H. Stephan (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1912), 614f. (ed. note: Cf. C. E. Nitzsch, System der christlichen Lehre, 5th, rev. ed. [Bonn: Adolph Marcus, 1844], 319–40). E. Schaeder, "Auferstehung," in PRE3, I, 219–24.

7 On the final judgment, cf. P. Lombard, Sent., IV, dist. 43f.; T. Aquinas, Summa theol., suppl., qu. 88–90; J. H. Oswald, Eschatologie, 334f.; L. Atzberger, Die christliche Eschatologie (Freiburg i.B.: Herder, 1890), 356–70; J. Gerhard, Loci. theol., XXVIII; J. Quenstedt, Theologia, IV, 605–34; A. Polanus, Synt. theol., VI, c. 69; Synopsis purioris theologiae, disp. 51; P. van Mastricht, Theologia, VIII, 4, 7; F. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, XX, qu. 6; J. Marckius, Exspectatio, III, c. 1–18; B. de Moor, Commentarius … theologiae, 6 vols. (Leiden: Hasebroek, 1761–71), VI, 706–18; Th. Kliefoth, Christliche Eschatologie, 236f., 275f.; B. Benzinger, "Gericht, göttliches," in PRE3, VI, 568–85.

8 Cf. above, 629–32 (#559).

9 J. Wegscheider, Institutiones theologiae christianae dogmaticae, 3rd ed. (Halle: Gebauer, 1819), §200; K. G. Bretschneider, Handbuch der Dogmatik der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche, 4th ed., 2 vols. (Leipzig: J. A. Barth, 1838), II, 468f., 581f.; F. V. Reinhard, Grundriss der Dogmatik (Munich: Seidel, 1802), 706f.; J. P. Lange, Positive Dogmatik (Heidelberg: K. Winter, 1851), §131; I. A. Dorner, A System of Christian Doctrine, trans. A. Cave and J. S. Banks, 4 vols. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1882), IV, 415–34; F. A. B. Nitzsch, Lehrbuch der evangelischen Dogmatik, 624 (ed. note: Cf. C. E. Nitzsch, System der christlichen Lehre, 319–40); W. Schmidt, Christliche Dogmatik (Bonn: E. Weber, 1895–98), II, 517; H. Bavinck, De theologie van Daniel Chantepie de la Saussaye (Leiden: Donner, 1884), 71–75; H. Ernst, "Twee pendant-leerstukken," Geloof en Vrijheid 20 (1886): 407–44; J. A. Cramer, "Het evangelie en de eeuwige straf," Theologische Studiën 20 (1902): 241–66. Cf. in England the advocates of the so-called future (or second) probation or of the wider hope, such as Robertson and F. D. Maurice ("The Word 'Eternal' and the Punishment of the Wicked," in Theological Essays [1853; repr., London: James Clarke, 1957], 302–25); T. de Quincey, "On the Supposed Scriptural Expression for Eternity," in Theological Essays and Other Papers (Boston: Ticknor, Reed, & Fields, 1854), 74–84; A. Tennyson, In Memoriam: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism, ed. Robert H. Ross (New York: Norton, 1973); F. W. Farrar, Eternal Hope (London: Macmillan, 1883); and idem, Mercy and Judgment (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1881); along with the literature produced in response to these two works: F. W. Farrar, J. Hogg, and T. de Quincey, The Wider Hope: Essays and Strictures of the Doctrine and Literature of Future Punishment by Numerous Writers, Lay and Clerical (London: Unwin, 1890). For America, we need to mention the defenders of the Andover position adopted by five professors of Andover College: Churchill, Harris, Hincks, Tucker, and Smyth, who deviated from several articles of the creed, also that concerning eternal punishment; cf. Andover Review (April 1890): 434–42. We may also add here the opinion of those who find the scriptural data too uncertain to warrant a firm conclusion and therefore abstain from making clear pronouncements in one direction or another: James Orr, The Christian View of God and the World, 7th ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1904), 397; K. Girgensohn, Zwölf Reden über die christliche Religion, 4th ed. (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1921), 319–37.

10 L. Atzberger, Geschichte der christlichen Eschatologie (Freiburg i.B. and St. Louis: Herder, 1896), 366–456.

11 D. Petavius (Petau), "De angelis," Op. theol., III, 7–8.

12 Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. H. R. MacIntosh and J. S. Stewart (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1928), §117–20, 163, 720–22, appendix on eternal damnation; A. Schweizer, Die Glaubenslehre der evangelisch-reformirten Kirche, 2 vols. (Zurich: Orell, Füssli, 1844–47), II, 577f., 591, 604; L. Schöberlein, Prinzip und System der Dogmatik (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1881), 679; O. Riemann, Die Lehre von den Apokatastasis, 2nd ed. (Magdeburg: Frölich, 1897); O. Schrader, Die Lehre von der Apokatastasis (Berlin: R. Boll, 1901); W. Hastie, The Theology of the Reformed Churches in Its Fundamental Principles (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1904), 277ff.; J. H. Scholten, Dogmaticae christianae initia, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (London: P. Engels, 1856–58), 268f.; W. Francken, "Henricus Brouwer," Geloof en Vrijheid 20 (1886); J. C. Eykman, "Algemeene of conditioneele onsterfelijkheid," Theologische Studiën 26 (1909): 359–80. Cf. J. Köstlin, "Apokatastasis," in PRE3, I, 616–22.

13 O. Fock, Der Socinianismus (Kiel: C. Schröder, 1847), 714f.

14 R. Rothe, Theologische Ethik, 2nd ed. (Wittenberg: Zimmermann, 1867–71), §470–72; Chr. Weisse, "Über die philosophische Bedeutung der christliche Lehre von den letzten Dinge," Theologische Studien und Kritiken 9/2 (1836): 271–340; idem, Philosophische Dogmatik oder Philosophie des Christentums, 3 vols. (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1855–62), §970.

15 E. White, Life in Christ: A Study of the Scripture Doctrine on the Nature of Man, the Object of the Divine Incarnation and the Conditions of Human Immortality, 3rd, rev. and enlarged ed. (London: Elliot Stock, 1878).

16 See, e.g., C. A. Row, Future Retribution (New York: Whittaker, 1887); G. G. Stokes, Conditional Immortality (London: James Nisbet, 1897); S. D. McConnell, The Evolution of Immortality (New York and London: Macmillan, 1901); H. Schultz, Voraussetzungen der christliche Lehre von der Unsterblichkeit (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1861); H. Plitt, Evangelische Glaubenslehre, 2 vols. (Gotha: Perthes, 1863–64), II, 413; L. Lemme, Endlosigkeit der Verdammnis und allgemeine Wiederbringung (Berlin: Runge, 1898); P. Paulsen, Das Leben nach dem Tode, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: Chr. Belser, 1905); G. Wobbermin, Theologie und Metaphysik, das Verhältnis der Theologie zur moderne Erkenntnistheorie und Psychologie (Berlin: A. Duncker, 1901), 159, 201, 205; E. White, L'immortalité conditionelle ou la vie en Christ, French version of Life of Christ (1878), trans. Charles Byse (Paris: G. Fischbacher, 1880); E. Pétavel-Olliff, Le problème de l'immortalité (Paris: Fischbacher, 1891); A. Decoppet, Les grands problèmes de l'au-delà, 8th ed. (Paris: Fischbacher, 1906); P. Vallotton, La vie après la mort (Laussane: F. Rouge, 1906); P. Stapfer, Questions esthétiques et religieuses (Paris: F. Alcan, 1906), 178, 205; A. J. Th. Jonker, "De leer der conditioneele onsterfelijkheid," Theologische Studiën 1 (1883): 1–20, 155ff., 548ff.; 2 (1884): 1855ff.; *M. v. E., "De conditioneele onsterfelijkheid," Stemmen voor Waarheid en Vrede 44 (July 1907); *G. Posthumus Meyjes, Lecture before Excelsior, March 9, 1911.

17 See H. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, III, 163–64 (#336).

18 E. White, Life in Christ, 358–90.

19 Augustine, City of God XXI, 11: "[Not the] diuturnitas peccandi [but the] voluntas peccantis, quae huiusmodi est ut seper vellet peccare si posset."

20 Cf. A. Strindberg, The Dance of Death, trans. A. Paulsen (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976), 41 (act 1, scene 1): "Don't you [believe in hell]—you who are living in one?" (German: Glaubst du nicht daran [an die Hölle], wo du mitten in ihr bist?).

21 Cf. H. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, II, 386 (#244), 388–89 (#245).

22 Augustine says: "The penalties of the damned are to some extent mitigated at certain intervals" (poenas damnatorum certis temporum inter vallis aliquatenus mitigari; Enchiridion 110). Cf. Lombard, Thomas, Bonaventure on Sent., IV, 46. Remarkable, further, is that Ambrose and Jerome make a distinction between the impious (unbelievers, non-Christians) and sinners (Christians who lived and died as sinners), and restrict eternal punishment in hell to the former. So, at least, says J. E. Niederhuber, Die Eschatologie des heiligen Ambrosius (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1907), 120, 248.

23 See further Augustine, Enchiridion 110–13; City of God XXI; P. Lombard, Sent., IV, dist. 46–50; T. Aquinas, Summa theol., suppl., qu. 97–99; A. Dante, "Inferno"; D. Petavius (Petau), "De angelis," III, c. 4–8, Op. theol., IV; Josef Sachs, Die ewige Dauer der Höllenstrafen (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1900); J. Bautz, Die Hölle in Anschluss an die Scholastiek dargestellt (Mainz: Kirchheim, 1905); J. Stufler (Die Heiligkeit Gottes und die ewige Tod [Innsbruck: Rauch, 1903]) opposes H. Schell, who assumes the possibility of an apokatastasis. F. X. Kiefl undertook to defend him in "Herman Schell und die Ewigkeit der Hölle," Theologisch-praktischen Monatsschrift 14 (1904): 685–709, and received a reply from Stufler, Die Verteidigung Schells durch Prof. Kiefl (Innsbruck: Rauch, 1904); A. M. Weiss, Die religiose Gefahr (Freiburg i.B.: Herder, 1904), 277, 353. Protestantism was consistent in its view of eternal punishment; see, briefly, B. de Moor, Comm. theol., III, 354–58; C. Vitringa, Doct. christ., IV, 175; II, 305, 320. In modern times, the idea that the hereafter does not bring a state of bliss for everyone sometimes encounters greater appreciation on the basis of the absolute character of the moral law or on the basis of the law of retribution (karma) that makes the consequences of sin inevitable; cf. Bavinck, Philosophy of Revelation (New York: Longmans, Green, 1909), 295, 314. On the ideas of pagans relative to reward and punishment on the other side of the grave, cf. F. Hettinger, Apologie du Christianisme, 5 vols. (Bar-le-Duc: L. Guérin, 1869–70), IV, 320.

Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2008). Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Vol. 4, pp. 691–714). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

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