The Biblical Doctrine of Hell
And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name. Revelation 14:11NKJ
Question 29 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What are the punishments of sin in the world to come?” It gives the answer, “The punishments of sin in the world to come, are everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell-fire forever.” Last week we looked at how God punishes sin in this life. Today we examine what that punishment will look like in the everlasting state.
Once again, not only the doctrine but also the words from today’s question and answer are taken right out of Scripture. Paul writes of “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ,” that “These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,” (2 Thess. 1:8b-9). Jesus declares that those who do not cut off sin-causing stumbling blocks will be “be cast into hell fire — where ‘Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched,’” (Mark 9:7:47b-48). Many other Scriptures affirm the Biblical doctrine of Hell: Matt. 5:22, 29; 10:28; 13:50; 25:41; Luke 16:23; John 5:29; Rom. 5:9; Heb. 6:8; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6-7;etc. Thus, the Bible everywhere teaches that there is a place of everlasting torment, called Hell.
This Hell is a place of punishment for sin. It is where God punishes sinners for the evils they have done. He afflicts their bodies and their souls. Since man is body and soul and has sinned with body and soul, so he must be punished in his body and in his soul. God is just. Therefore He must punish sin and give to sinners exactly what they deserve according to their works. Jesus said that “on the day of judgment men will give an account for every careless word they speak,” (Matt. 12:36). Sin is an affront to God. It is rebellion and treason against the king of the universe and His perfect government. Therefore, every single sin must be punished or else God’s kingdom of perfect righteousness has been dishonored and defeated. Man’s sin being evil, the holiness of God demands that every sin be punished with exactly what it deserves. Accordingly, God revealed Himself to Moses as the God who will “by no means clear the guilty,” (Exo. 34:7). Furthermore, because sin, by definition, is a personal offense against the honor of the infinite God, each sin deserves infinite punishment. For the only way to make good an infinite debt, is by an infinite payment. Thus, the Catechism speaks of torments “without intermission … forever.” The Scripture at the head of this article affirms this teaching. Those in Hell “have no rest day or night,” for “the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever.”
Finally, we notice that part of the punishment of Hell is “everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God.” We noted earlier one of the Biblical texts from which this statement was taken; “These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,” (2 Thess. 1:9). What does the Bible mean when it speaks of being punished “away from the presence of the Lord”? Some have mistakenly interpreted this text as teaching that the entire punishment of Hell is simply to be separate from God. But as the Catechism explains, the sinner in Hell is not separated from the entire presence of God (which is impossible, Ps. 139:7-10), but from the comfortable presence of God. Thus also the Scripture teaches that they are not punished away from God’s power, but from the glory (i.e., the beauty and splendor) of His power. And so it is wrong to imagine a Hell where the sum total of the punishments inflicted, is the absence of God’s presence. In fact, the Bible teaches that what makes the torment of Hell truly terrifying is not the absence of God, but the presence of God! God reveals Himself to the sinner in Hell without any mercy, without any grace, without any compassion whatsoever. The sinner in Hell could only wish to escape God’s exacting presence (Rev. 6:16-17)! No, what the sinner in Hell experiences is not simply the absence of all blessedness, but the presence of real torment in the wrath of God forever and ever. Thus, many Scriptures confirm that the punishments of Hell include the presence of numerous terrible things; such as, fires that are not quenched, worms that do not die, torments, anguish, dreadful thirst, weeping and gnashing of teeth, etc. Consequently, in salvation, Jesus delivers us not from an eternity of God’s absence, but from an eternity of God’s wrath poured out: “having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him,” (Rom. 5:9); “Jesus … delivers us from the wrath to come,” (1 Thess. 1:10; see also Joh. 3:36; Rom. 2:5, 8; Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:6; 1 Thess. 5:9; etc.). Praise God for His great salvation!