the wrath to come

100404 Jeff & Penny Vann at Takanini CoC 046 edited 500wide

The biblical prophets had a double role. As representatives of the LORD, they were free to pronounce blessing upon the people if God willed it. Often, however, they predicted his impending judgment. John the Baptist was no exception. As the forerunner to the Messiah, he proclaimed the marvelous good news (or gospel) that Christ was coming to this earth. Yet the people were not ready for their king. Consequently, John’s message was one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The good news of the Christ to come had to be taught alongside the bad news of the wrath to come. Two very similar verses from the record of John’s ministry in the New Testament highlight this message.

“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? “”[1]

“He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? “”[2]

These are the first major texts in the New Testament that address the issue of final punishment of the wicked. They reflect the fact that John encountered multitudes of Israelites who felt ready to embrace the coming of their Messiah, but they were actually not ready. So, John’s message was to get ready for him or face his wrath.

The crowds, and particularly the religious elite, felt that the Messiah’s coming would bring victory against Israel’s enemies, and blessing to all of those who were physical descendants of Abraham and Jacob. John’s message was that physical lineage meant nothing. If God wanted to, he could produce children to Abraham out of stones. In fact, being children of Israel meant that these people stood to be the first to fall when God’s wrath is unleashed. Thus, John’s message was that the nation had to get right with its God.

the wrath of the orchard owner

The nature of this wrath is spelled out by John with two familiar images. First, he pictures the Messiah as an orchard owner, whose axe is laid at the root of the trees.[3] He had planted the trees for the purpose of bearing fruit. If they are fruitless when he comes, they will serve as firewood. Their destruction would be fair because they will have not served their master’s purpose.

The threat that these people face could in no way be construed as any kind of eternal existence at all. They were in danger of being cut down and destroyed. The wrath that John described was not an ongoing process of perpetual wrath, but an event. That event would be eternal, in the sense of permanent. It would result in death forever – the second death.

the wrath of the wheat farmer

The second image John uses to describe the wrath to come is that of a wheat farmer during harvest time. The Messiah would gather the authentic wheat into the barn for preservation. He will then set out to remove all the chaff that is left over. He will do this by burning the chaff up.[4]

The image illustrates essentially the same teaching as the axe image did. Those who are not prepared for the Messiah’s arrival will not take part in his kingdom. They will be excluded from it because they will have been destroyed by the Messiah’s wrath. Mere appearance will not save them. Unfruitful chaff will be eliminated in the same way that the unfruitful trees will. The wrath is fire, and the fire destroys.

But John’s use of the wheat farmer imagery adds one more element to the theology he is defining. This element makes explicit what was merely implied in the use of the orchard owner image. John further describes the fire of God’s wrath as “unquenchable.”[5]

Piper insists that “the term “unquenchable fire” implies a fire that will not be extinguished and therefore a punishment that will not end.”[6] Neither the image, nor the teaching of John the Baptist support that assumption. The adjective asbestos only appears three times in the New Testament.[7] In each reference, the word describes the nature of the fire, not the process of burning. It is a warning that anyone thrown into the fire will not be able to extinguish it. It contains no promise that the process of burning will go on forever.

In both of the images John the Baptist uses, it is clear that the subjects thrown into the fire are destructible – that is the point. The trees and chaff are not thrown into fire to be tortured, but to be destroyed. The punishment is destruction. The masters of the orchard and wheat fields gain neither pleasure nor profit from this fire. It is only there to eliminate what will not meet their objectives. Likewise, God will not be pleased when he puts people into the fire of Gehenna hell. His wrath only exists because eternity is for the recipients of his grace alone. His wrath is subservient to — not coequal to – his love.

The conditionalist teaching on hell is that it will be a necessary reality at the end of the age. It does not take place at death. It takes place in conjunction with the second coming of Christ. This is in line with John the Baptist’s teaching on the wrath to come. John never mentioned the intermediate state. To him, what happens at death is eschatologically insignificant. Judgment will happen when the Judge returns.

Traditionalists have bought into the unbiblical concept of immortal souls, and must do something with those souls in the intermediate state. Thus, they highjack passages like these, and make them serve another purpose. For them, the wrath of God is not something that Christ brings with him, it is something that the wicked go to. In so doing, major elements of the text have to be explained away, because they do not fit the new referent.

1. John taught that the wrath is coming from God. Traditionalists teach that God’s wrath is something that souls go to.

2. John taught that the wrath will accompany the Messiah when he returns. Traditionalists teach that God’s wrath is currently ongoing, and is experienced immediately after death.

3. John taught that the subjects of the wrath will be destroyed by fire (burned up). Traditionalists teach that the subjects are immortal souls, who cannot be destroyed, and therefore must continue to suffer eternally.

4. John taught that the masters of the orchard and wheat farms had complete control over their dominions. They had unproductive elements which they intended to remove by destruction, and nothing could stop them. They would put an end to the problems. Traditionalists teach that God’s wrath is a process that cannot ever end. It will never stop tormenting the lost because it cannot.

Rob Bell questioned how God could be a winner in such circumstances.[8] He was right to do so. The traditionalist doctrine of hell makes God’s wrath the end. John taught that the Messiah’s wrath would be necessary, but the purpose was different. Wrath is necessary to make room for eternal peace and love. In the traditionalist approach, God’s wrath never makes an end of sin. It is eternally affected by it.

the purpose of the wrath to come

These snapshots from John the Baptist’s ministry teach of a wrath which will accomplish the greater purpose of establishing a world without evil and sin, where love and righteousness will reign eternally. They envision a harvest that will outlast the judgment. They see fruit trees productive forever, and wheat gathered safely into the barn forever. The burning fires that remove the impediments in this vision are inevitable, and they cannot be put out until they accomplish this vision of forever. But the fires are not the purpose. They will be unquenchable until they accomplish the purpose.

If this is not so, then the coming wrath serves absolutely no purpose. Today we live in a world where good and evil already coexist. There are productive trees, and hypocritical trees. There is wheat, and there is chaff. Both exist together, so God’s glory is limited by the unholy combination. The traditionalist teaching is that God’s wrath will merely separate the unrighteous, but that they will continue to live eternally in the same universe as the righteous. God’s universe will be eternally marred by the existence of this blight, and his wrath will not be able to change that. The God who once saw all creation and pronounced it “very good” will never be able to say that again.

Conditionalists suggest a different scenario. we suggest that John’s description of hell is much more realistic. Hell is a tool God uses for eliminating the undesirable elements, and that is all. The fire is real, and it does what fires do. It destroys, and makes way for something better, something indestructible. God’s love will win, not because he eventually pulls people out of hell, but because after hell has served its purpose, there will be no need for wrath. The Christ whose wrath will destroy the old things will make “all things new.”[9]

[1] Matthew 3:7 ESV.

[2] Luke 3:7 ESV.

[3] Matthew 3:10; Luke 3:9.

[4] Matthew 3:12; Luke 3:17.

[5] Matthew 3:12; Luke 3:17.

[6] John Piper, Let The Nations Be Glad. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 121.

[7] Matthew 3:12; Mark 9:43; Luke 3:17.

[8] Rob Bell, LOVE WINS: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. (Robert H. Bell, Jr. Trust, 2011). See my review here:

[9] Revelation 21:5.

clarifying evangelical conditionalism


The process of theological debate requires a constant stating and restating of one’s position so that all parties are aware of where each other stands. If this does not happen, we run the risk of misrepresenting each other in the conversation. Some of my recent articles were presented in hopes of accurately defining the position of evangelical conditionalism.[1] This is another attempt to clarify what evangelical conditionalists believe.

1. Evangelical Conditionalists believe that only Jesus can save sinners.

Many in the theological debate wrongly conclude that anyone who challenges the traditionalist teaching on hell must be a theological liberal. In reality, conditionalists are usually quite conservative in their view of God, the Bible, and especially salvation. We believe that there is only one way to salvation, and his name is Jesus Christ. Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”[2] Other religions, or inspired human effort might help people change their ways, but they are not the way back into a relationship with the Father. Only Jesus is the Way. Other religions, or inspired human effort might come to some aspects of the truth, but only Jesus is the Truth himself. Other religions, or inspired human effort may improve someone’s quality of life, but they can never impart eternal life. Only Jesus can do that.

At this juncture, traditionalists might argue that this is a point of essential agreement between themselves and conditionalists. Indeed it is. Yet we challenge our traditionalist brothers and sisters to embrace that final aspect of John 14:6 in its entirety. Traditionalism teaches that all human beings are born with a soul which has immortality regardless of whether that soul has accepted Christ or not. Thus, that immortal soul has no need for Jesus, and is in no danger of losing eternal life. Their destiny is to live forever whether or not they have come to Christ. Christ does not mean exclusive life to them, but life in a better location.

Conditionalists, on the other hand, believe and teach what we call life only in Christ. We see life not as an innate possession, but as a potential possession. The difference is Christ. Instead of trusting in an inborn quality in our nature, we trust in Christ. Our hope is built on nothing less that Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Christ is our life.

2. Evangelical Conditionalists believe that only God has immortality.

Although conditionalism is usually defined as an anthropological

tenant, it has just as rightful a place among the doctrines of theology proper. At the heart of our teaching is what Paul declared about God: that he “alone has immortality.”[3] That is, if there were a box in which all the beings of this universe who could not die were placed, it would be occupied by the LORD alone. No created being – not even the angels in heaven – share that attribute with him, for since they owe their existence and life to God, they cannot claim immortality.

Human beings (even human souls) are just as much created beings as the angels, and therefore share their mortality. The hope being immortal is just that: it is a hope. The Bible never speaks of human immortality this side of the resurrection at Christ’s return. Human immortality is a promise. We possess it only in that potential form. It is the inheritance of the saints.

3. Evangelical Conditionalists believe that only the Saved will Live Forever.

Biblical eschatology presents a series of prophesied events that will take place simultaneously with – or be initiated by – Christ’s second coming. At the end of that stream of events there will be an ultimate consummation of all things. The Judgment Day will be one of those events, but it too will have an end – “the second death.”[4] After this, Jesus will recreate heaven and earth for our eternal habitation and his eternal glory.[5]

Eternity is an exclusive club, and non-members are not allowed. Those whose names are not listed in the Lamb’s book of life will have been destroyed (soul and body) in hell.[6] That would make it impossible for them to participate in eternity. Traditionalists teach that God is obligated to keep human souls alive forever because he made them immortal. The Bible does not teach that. Traditionalists teach that God will torment these souls for eternity. The Bible teaches that those in hell will be tormented as punishment for their particular sins, some with few stripes, others with many.[7] That reflects the justice that was prescribed in the Old Testament law.[8] God is just. His justice does not require torturing people for eternity for the sins of a few years. But even if one could justify punishing people forever, it would still require immortality, which the Bible is clear that sinners do not have.

Another point in which traditionalists and conditionalists disagree is that most traditionalists insist that punishment in hell begins the moment the sinner dies. Conditionalists place reward and punishment at the point in time that the Bible does. The Bible says “the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.”[9] Both destinies begin at the second coming of Christ. Neither the believer’s eternal life nor the damnation of hell begin at death. Instead, death is a period of unconscious sleep for both. For traditionalists, hell begins at death, is interrupted by an unnecessary second judgment, and then resumes again.

Conditionalists love the message that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life..”[10] We do not choose to redefine that message – by changing the reward to something else besides eternal life. Immortal existence in God’s recreated universe is OK with us. We do not have to go to our reward at death. We prefer to wait for our reward to come to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Only after he returns will eternal life be meaningful.

Conditionalists believe that this present world consists of haves and have nots. The Bible says “that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”[11] Only the saved will live forever. The lost will be … well… lost.

[1] and and

[2] John 14:6 ESV.

[3] 1 Timothy 6:16.

[4] Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8.

[5] Revelation 21:1-2.

[6] Matthew 10:28; Revelation 20:15.

[7] Luke 12:48.

[8] Deuteronomy 25:3.

[9] John 5:28-29 KJV.

[10] John 3:16 ESV.

[11] 1 John 5:11-12 ESV.

ACST 53. The Testimony



God’s work of regeneration opens the mind to the reality the Bible reveals about God, Christ, sin, Satan, the world, and the Church. The believer’s self-awareness is forever altered. This new way of thinking is called repentance. One major result of this new way of thinking is how it is reflected in the believer’s testimony.

The first disciples said that Jesus appeared to them after his resurrection because they were “chosen in advance to be his witnesses” – which included preaching and testifying about Jesus.[1] He told them “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”[2] They shared their testimony and turned the world upside down with it. Most of them gave up their lives sharing that testimony. In fact, the word “witness” soon took on the predominant meaning of someone who died for their faith.[3]

What made these believers witnesses was not merely the fact that they were willing to die for what they believed. They were passing on the reality of Jesus Christ. They were God’s means of testifying to the existence, work, and significance of his Son. He could have chosen to prove his existence some other way. He could have endowed places or symbols with his power. He did not. He could have written the life of Jesus on tablets of stone for people to idolize. He did not. He entrusted the good news to those who received it.

The process of passing on the most significant news in the history of the universe was not delegated to angels. Human beings were both the recipients and the messengers of this good news. Long before the New Testament was completed, ordinary people were sharing the story of Jesus and its importance to humanity. It was God’s choice to spread this good news through this method. It still is.

What They Testified To

The Bible mentions some specific details that were part of the testimony of early believers. Jesus called this testimony “the facts about me.”[4] They included…

1. the fact that Jesus was God’s choice to judge the world.[5]

2. that God’s righteousness is available to all.[6]

3. the good news that God saves people by grace.[7]

4. that Christ had been with the Father, and appeared to humanity.[8]

5. that the Father had sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.[9]

6. that Jesus was the Messiah whom the Jews had waited for.[10]

7. that Jesus is the King of God’s Kingdom, of whom the Old Testament speaks.[11]

8. that Christ gave himself on the cross as a ransom for all.[12]

9. that God raised Christ from the dead, which guarantees our resurrection.[13]

10. that Jesus is the Lord in whom we must put our faith.[14]

11. that God has promised eternal life for those who are in Christ.[15]

The gospel is not about us. It is not the fact that if we do something, then God is obligated to save us. The gospel is about Jesus Christ. It is the story of what he did for us. It is the glorious truth that God has a solution for humanity’s failure, and invites us to accept it, and experience it. It is the revelation of a divine plan, which began in eternity past, and will result in a glorious future eternity.

God’s primary means of turning the world to himself is the testimony that believers communicate. His plan includes an eternal destination, and he has chosen us to get the news out, so that others can join him there. That eternal destination has often wrongly been called “heaven.” It is an unfortunate choice of words because the destination to which we aspire is not a particular location (heaven as opposed to earth) as much as it is an inheritance. God’s plan is to redeem all creation. That is why the Bible speaks of a new heaven and a new earth.[16]

The testimony of faith looks at all the ugliness of this present reality and chooses to trust Christ and his promises. The believer does not wish to escape earth and go to heaven, but longs for the redemption and restoration of the whole universe so that it once again can be called “very good.” The goal of faith is not to escape the evil but to outlast it. The key to doing that is the resurrection of the righteous. By faith, the believer looks beyond her own death, and embraces the promise of a resurrection unto eternal life at Christ’s return.

In the mean-time, the believer chooses to live in the kingdom of Christ, and occupy herself with proclaiming the good news of that kingdom’s existence. It is a kingdom which is both now and later. It is a dominion of a king who is willing and able to rule in the lives of those who submit to him. But it is also a promise of a future rule of that same king over the domain of the entire universe. The testimony is a declaration of salvation both here and now and there and then. It is the good news that Jesus can cleanse and restore our broken lives and relationships today. It is also the good news that another, future life awaits those who put their faith in him, with a glorious transformation unlike anything that we can experience in the present. Gospel witnessing includes these three messages:

1. what Christ did for us on Calvary’s cross,

2. what Christ can do for us today,

3. what Christ promises for eternity.

How to witness

Jesus testified of himself by means of the spoken word, and has commanded his church to do the same. He testified by public preaching and teaching and by small group and private conversation. At no point did he restrict his intentions by allowing only the professional to witness.

“Then he opened their minds to understand

the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is

written, that the Christ should suffer and on

the third day rise from the dead, and that

repentance and forgiveness of sins should be

proclaimed in his name to all nations,

beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses

of these things.”[17]

The first obligation to witness was upon those who observed his death and resurrection. That observation of those events, however, did not especially qualify them as witnesses. To be a witness in the New Testament sense is not to have observed something, but to testify of it. It is something you say, not something you see. A person was a witness in court not because he had seen something, but because he had been chosen to testify of what he had seen (or heard). The emphasis was always on the saying, not the seeing. Also, the reason they got into trouble with the authorities was not that they had observed Christ and his resurrection and ascension, but that they talked about those facts and used them as proof that he is alive and is Lord of all. It was not what they saw, but what they said.

We who follow after those first witnesses are just as obligated to speak about who Christ is, what he has done, and what he is going to do. Jesus prayed for us when he prayed for “those who will believe in me through their word”[18] – that is, those who carry on the faith that the apostles propagated. He wants us to share that faith utilizing the same means: public speech and private conversations.

The testimonies were not limited to speeches and conversations. The gospel truth soon became incorporated in the Gospels and epistles. All media available at the time was utilized to get the good news out to those who needed it. The words of the gospel found their way into the songs and stories and art of the witnesses. As time progressed new media were developed. Each of these has also become a means of testifying to the truth that Jesus exists, what he has done, and what he is going to do.

Witnessing was more than an individual responsibility. Witnesses naturally gathered together to encourage one another. Associations with others who named the name of Christ became a means of testifying as well. Communities of believers witnessed to each other as a means of building one another up and promoting the act of witnessing to the lost. By being associated with other believers, witnesses showed that Christ was more than a mere ideology. Those who congregated (when possible) showed that they shared a relationship with Jesus and with each other. The Church became the social network of all social networks. It became one of the visible witnesses to the work of the invisible Holy Spirit.

Before long, traditions developed in the churches that reflected the reality of what was preached in the pulpits. It became clear that some of the things that Christ had commanded his disciples were meant to be carried on by each successive generation of the church. The act of baptizing new converts as a means of confessing the reality of the new life and the hope of a resurrection was one of those traditions. The meal celebrating the new covenant initiated by Jesus with his disciples in the upper room was another.

The apostles insisted that Christ-like character was to be expected of all believers. This was to be the means of witnessing to the reality of our words. The words were to be validated and verified by our actions, attitudes, and relationships. Thus, when the apostles encountered problems in their churches, they responded with strong rebuke and discipline. The words of the epistles continue to minister to us by drawing attention to our transgressions. The reason for this is that our task of witnessing to the reality of the gospel is just as pertinent today. The first mission is still the foremost mission. Anything that we do that subverts that mission must be corrected.

Distorted Testimony

Not only should we watch our lives to make sure that they are reflecting what we testify, we should also constantly watch what we are saying. Our witnessing needs to be a careful balance between two extremes. We can distort the gospel by making too much of it. That is, we can pack so much content into our presentation of the good news that we overwhelm those we are trying to reach. We need to develop the skill of saying the words that people need to hear about Christ, and just those words.

On the other hand, if we say too little, we run the risk of presenting a message other than that “once for all delivered to the saints.”[19] A message that is too simple runs the risk of leading people to a faith that is too simple. A truncated gospel leaves too much out. It makes a person religious without being devoted to Jesus. Also, it becomes a self-perpetuating mistake. Whole communities have been encouraged to come to Jesus without repenting from their sins. A gospel without true repentance is not the gospel at all. While that may be a way of gaining popularity with the world, it is also a way of making the church irrelevant.

The true good news is good news because it takes into account the bad news of sin, failure, and depravity. For the church to be a reliable and faithful witness to Christ, she must share the reality of Christ’s rescue along with the backdrop of humanity’s failure and sin. But we must remember that we are witnesses, not judges. We have to be honest about our own failures and problems, and share the reality of our own struggles. Then, those who struggle with the same things will know how Christ helps. If we are not honest, the world will get a wrong idea about what Christianity. A witness to hypocrisy only breeds more hypocrisy.

Those who truly seek to share the good news are going to have to adjust their methods to meet the current culture. Tried and true methods of the past will have to be surrendered when it becomes obvious that they are no longer practical or effective. New methods will have to be developed which scratch where today’s society itches. Care must be taken to ensure that vital content is not lost in the process. This is all part of the process of witnessing wisely.

The most effective means of verifying and validating one’s testimony is the subject of the next chapter. The life lived in faith makes the gospel real to the believer, and confirms his testimony.

[1] Acts 10:41-42.

[2] Acts 1:8 ESV.

[3] The Greek word martus is one of several which took on this connotation.

[4] Acts 23:11.

[5] Acts 10:42.

[6] Romans 1:16-17.

[7] Acts 20:24.

[8] 1 John 1:2.

[9] 1 John 4:14.

[10] Acts 18:5.

[11] Acts 28:23.

[12] 1 Timothy 2:6.

[13] 1 Corinthians 15.

[14] Acts 20:21.

[15] 1 John 5:11-13.

[16] Revelation 21:1.

[17] Luke 24:45-48 ESV.

[18] John 17:20 .

[19] Jude 3.