the purpose of hell


Wheat Fied, Palouse, Washington State, USA

gift of life #20

the purpose of hell

I’m a little bit older now, and I’m glad for it. I enjoyed raising my three daughters, but I wouldn’t want to do it again. I am glad some aspects of parenthood are now over for me. Top of that list is punishing the kids. I did it when I had to, but I never enjoyed it, and I didn’t want it to last any longer than necessary.

In the last session, I introduced the concept of the wrath of God. Yes, God will have to punish his naughty kids, too. But people teach a lot of ideas about God’s wrath that just don’t add up. Listen to what John the Baptist taught about the wrath to come:

Luke 3:7 “So John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”

Luke 3:9 “Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Luke 3:17 “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clean out his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire.”

This was the very first message about final punishment in the New Testament. It was preached by John the Baptist, to his own fellow Israelites. In it, he spoke of God as if he was an orchard owner, who is going to cut down all his unfruitful trees, and burn them up in a fire. He spoke of God as if he was a wheat farmer, who is going to gather up all his good wheat, and throw the chaff into a pile and burn it up, in a fire that no one can put out.

Now what does this message tell us about the purpose of hell. Well, consider what it does not say. It does not say that the orchard owner takes pleasure in torturing his unfruitful trees for eternity. It does not say that the wheat farmer will try to burn up the chaff, but he will not be able to, because for some reason the chaff will prove to be indestructible. You see, an inextinguishable fire still burns up chaff. It’s not the chaff that’s inextinguishable. It’s the fire which the wheat farmer uses to burn the chaff up.

As a parent, I did not want to punish my children. But when I had to do it, I did it, and got it over with. That’s what John the Baptist taught about final punishment. At the end of the day, there will only be fruitful trees, because the fire will serve its purpose, destroying the unfruitful trees. At the end of the day, there will only be good wheat, because the fire will serve its purpose, destroying the chaff. That’s what hell is for. That is the purpose of hell.

I know, you’ve been taught something else. You have been taught that God’s holiness requires that unbelievers be consciously tortured for eternity. But what this text teaches is that God’s holiness requires an eternity without unbelievers. That’s what hell is for. That is the purpose of hell.

If you have any questions about this teaching, you can ask me at Join me for this entire series as we search the scriptures to learn about the gift of life.

Listen to the audio file at Afterlife.

God’s mouse

gift of lifegift of life #19

God’s mouse

It’s a story I heard many times while a missionary in the Philippines. It goes like this: There was a visiting preacher who did not understand the Cebuano language of Mindanao, so he had to have an interpreter with him when he preached. But the interpreter could not understand his English very well, since he had a heavy accent. One night while he was preaching, the preacher mentioned the wrath of God. But the interpreter did not quite hear him correctly. So, the interpreter confidently belted out the phrase ilaga sa dios. Laughter ensued, and the legend of God’s mouse was born!

While the story is funny, the reality of God’s wrath is not. It is a horrible reality. Jesus taught that everyone deserves that wrath, and that everyone will experience it except those who put their faith in him. He said “The one who believes in the Son has eternal life. The one who rejects the Son will not see life, but God’s wrath remains on him” John 3:36. So, according to scripture, the wrath of God is not a form of eternal life. It is the opposite. God’s wrath puts an end to life.

The apostle Paul said that those who refuse to obey the truth are actually storing up wrath which they will experience on judgment day. He said “because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for yourselves in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed! He will reward each one according to his works: eternal life to those who by perseverance in good works seek glory and honor and immortality, but wrath and anger to those who live in selfish ambition and do not obey the truth but follow unrighteousness” Romans 2:5-8. So, according to scripture, the wrath of God is a sentence of judicial punishment which keeps getting worse and worse as long as you live in rebellion against God without repenting of that rebellion. Those who have repented are free to seek glory and honor and immortality, and the end result of that perseverance will be eternal life. Once again, the wrath of God as a punishment is contrasted with eternal life. The wrath is not a form of eternal life.

The Bible teaches that there will come a day when all of this wrath will be fully poured out on unbelievers. It says “And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne. Then books were opened, and another book was opened–the book of life. So the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to their deeds. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each one was judged according to his deeds. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death–the lake of fire. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, that person was thrown into the lake of fire” Revelation 20:12-15. So, according to scripture, the wrath of God is not experienced at death. It will be experienced on judgment day. It will not be a process of perpetual torment, but an event which will end in the second death, eternal death, from which there will be no resurrection.

No, it’s not funny. But it is a terrible reality. If you are an unbeliever, escape the coming wrath by repenting of your sins and trusting in Christ today!

If you have any questions about this teaching, you can ask me at Join me for this entire series as we search the scriptures to learn about the gift of life.

(audio file available at Afterlife)


IMG_0368gift of life #18


There are basically three views of final punishment debated among Christians. Two groups believe that God has created everyone with immortal souls. One group believes that in hell, God will keep punishing the souls of the lost forever because he cannot destroy them. This is what I call the traditionalist view. Another group says that God will destroy the sin, and eventually restore all the souls, so that no one will be lost forever. That is the view I call universalism. Traditionalists and universalists both agree on one thing: the immortality of the soul. They disagree over the meaning of hell itself. Traditionalists see hell as a perpetual process, while universalists see it as an event with everlasting results.

We conditionalists agree with universalists in that we see hell as an event with everlasting results, not a process which has to go on perpetually. We disagree with both groups in that we find no biblical justification for innate immortality. We believe that hell will involve real destruction, and that destruction will be everlasting.

The Greek adjective used to describe hell most in the New Testament is aionios, and that word is better translated everlasting, not eternal. It refers to the permanence of a result, rather than the continuous duration of a process.

Paul used this word aionios three times in his second letter to the Corinthians, and each use demonstrates that meaning.

  • In 4:17, he compared our present slight momentary affliction to our future everlasting weight of glory.
  • In the next verse, he compares the everlasting things to come that we cannot see now to the temporary things that we can see.
  • In 5:1, he compares our future everlasting body in the sky to our temporary tent of a body that we have now.

Now, the traditionalists look at that evidence and they say “see, hell is everlasting, so people will continue to suffer in it forever.”

No, when Paul used the word aionios to describe hell he said that the lost: “will be punished with everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). That is not an on-going process. It is an event which has everlasting results.

So, when we conditionalists say that hell is everlasting, we affirm just what Paul did. It is God’s real solution to the problem of sin. Sinners will be destroyed, and that destruction will be everlasting.

If you have any questions about this teaching, you can ask me at Join me for this entire series as we search the scriptures to learn about the gift of life.

Listen to the audio at Afterlife.

in good hands

menfac98gift of life #17

in good hands

Last session I mentioned that I had just come from a friend’s funeral, and the preacher watched his language and did not stray away from the Bible when he talked about my friend’s death. That’s not always the case. Sometimes, seeking to comfort the grieving, people say the most unbiblical things.

I am reminded of the funeral of another friend a few years ago. My friend and fellow professor at Oro Bible College in the Philippines, Rev. Rustom Marquiño, died after a long illness. Rustom was a great man of God, and one of those people who are full of life – the kind you like to be around. I hated to see him go, and I still miss him.

{The photo is of the male OBC faculty in 1998. Rustom Marquino, Dr. David Dean, myself (Jefferson Vann), and Graciano Villadolid.}

As is the custom in the Philippines, the family asked several different groups that Rustom was associated with to each take a nightly funeral service. As a result, one of the preachers (who probably didn’t know Rustom’s theology) said that Rustom had flown to heaven the moment he died This preacher based that assumption on Acts 7:59, where Stephen prays for the Lord to receive his spirit. The preacher said that Stephen did not go to sleep, he went to heaven. The next day, in class, I asked my students to go to Acts 7:59, and then read the next verse. It says “’And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”

The whole point of what Stephen said is that he was trusting Jesus to take care of him until he comes again and raises him from the dead. Jesus said a similar thing at the cross. He was quoting from Psalm 31:5, where David says “Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O LORD, the God of truth.” David’s assurance was not that death was unreal. His assurance was that when a believer is dead, that believer is in good hands. Death is an end to life. But when God’s hands hold you, there is always hope for new, resurrected life.

Our comfort at the death of loved ones should not be based on fantasy. It should be based on reality. The reality is that death is real. Our only true hope in the fact of that grim reality is that God is true to his word. He will bring the dead back to life again. So, someone who has fallen asleep in Christ is in good hands.

Our trust is not in a theology of human nature. We do not deny the reality and severity of death. Our trust is in a God who is able to keep his promises.

If you have any questions about this teaching, you can ask me at Join me for this entire series as we search the scriptures to learn about the gift of life.

Listen to the audio file at Afterlife.

the message is ministry

IMG_0203The word gospel is usually translated “good news.” It can also be translated “excellent message.” I like that translation because it helps me to realise how important sharing the message about Christ is. There are any number of good things I can do for others as part of my ministry.  But the most important thing is to get this excellent message to them.

Mark started his Gospel with the words “This is the beginning of that excellent message about Jesus Christ (1:1).” From then on, any biography of Jesus was called a Gospel. But Mark was not using the word to indicate a new literary genre.[1] He was talking about the unique message about Jesus that John the Baptist started preaching, and he was essentially saying “now here’s my take on that excellent message.” It is like Mark was also challenging me to write a Gospel according to Jefferson Vann. Of course, I was not there to write the beginning of the message, but that message has impacted me, so I get to help pass it on.

Jesus himself preached that excellent message, and commanded others to believe it (1:14-15). To believe the message is to believe in Christ himself. You haven’t really repented unless you do. To believe that message is to take up your cross and have your soul put to death for it (8:34-35). It is worth leaving your family behind for (10:29). It’s worth more than simply liking it when someone posts it on a social network. It’s worth giving everything for.

The mission of reaching the nations with this message is so important that Jesus promises not to come back to earth until it is done (13:10). All those stories in the New Testament will be told to the whole world (14:9; 16:15) as a witness to everyone of the impact that Jesus had when he came to visit this little planet. The message includes what Jesus did and what he taught his followers to do. So, each generation needs to ask whether we are doing things that spread the message or stifle it.

Each church needs to ask a similar question. Lots of things are being done, and money spent on “missions” projects that have little to do with giving the excellent message to those who have not heard it. We used to invest lots of money in these strange animals that we called missionaries. The missionaries would leave their home country and invest themselves in the lives of people in another culture in order to get the message into that culture, and establish proclamation posts (churches) in that target culture. I know that still can happen. I am a missionary myself. But the club is not a very popular one in this generation.

Now, I know I’m being simplistic. Ministry in the name of Jesus is more than just sharing the message about Jesus. When the world looks at a church which just preaches, they see a museum exhibit with a caption underneath “archaic and soon to be extinct.” We owe it to our neighbours to love them as we love ourselves, which will mean feeding them when they are hungry, and helping them heal when they are broken. There is a lot of ministry that we can do, and we should do in the name of Christ. I think the pendulum has begun to swing back in the direction of serving others in this generation, and that is a good thing. But we should not lose sight of the message completely as we minister. The message is ministry.

[1] R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text. (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 4.