There are laws of right doing and equity which cannot be broken without incurring grave consequences. The prospect before men in the life to come is one of constantly widening experience and deepening knowledge of God and his creation, but that life must be conducted in harmony with right principles to be sustained by the Giver of all life. The violation of those principles is called "sin" by the Bible, and the consequence of continued and incorrigible sin, the Bible declares, is cessation of life. A wise man of Old Testament days expressed this vital law in pithy words "As righteousness tendeth to life, so he that pursueth evil pursueth it to his own death"; "In the way of righteousness there is life; and in the pathway thereof there is no death" (Prov.11.19;12.28). Paul said that "the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life" (Rom.6.23). This is the basis upon which is built the Scriptural doctrine of the consequences of sin.
The term 'everlasting punishment' appears in the Authorised Version only once, in Matt.25.46. Human ideas of 'punishment', usually involving an element of revenge, reprisal or retaliation, are not what the New Testament means when it deals with the consequences of sin. A preferable term is penalty, or better still, retribution. The underlying principle is laid down by Paul in Gal. 6.7 "Be not deceived; God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap". A passage in the Epistle of James puts the case very clearly: "Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death" (Jas.1.14-15 RSV). The penalty must not be looked upon as a kind of arbitrary Divine retaliation against rebels who displease him. It is rather the logical and inevitable operation of natural law which demands that every disorderly or disruptive element must eventually be eliminated that the purpose of God in creation be realised in the happiness and fulness of life of every living being. The fact that we do not yet see this law bringing forth its final results does not deny its truth; humanity is at this moment still in the early stages of that long experience which is at length to achieve that end. The close of this present life in the death of the body is only an incident in this long process and there is more, much more, to come. Eventually it will be evident that sin bears within itself the seeds of its own destruction and the sinner who will not renounce his rebellion against God signs his own death warrant.
The Bible emphasises that eventually evil and sin will disappear from creation. In the whole wide realm of Divine government there will be no such thing as evil and no such thing as sin. In 1 Cor.15.24-28 Paul looks forward to a time when the enemies of God have been overthrown, death has become a thing of the past, and in the plenitude of his sovereignty God has become "all in all". Eph.1.9-10 (RSV) stresses that God will, at the end, "unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth". In what is perhaps one of the grandest flights of eloquence in the New Testament, the Epistle to the Philippians speaks of the time to come when "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow… and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil.2.9-10). These and other lines of Scripture argument make clear that evil will eventually cease to be.
All life is the gift of God; no created being can continue to live except by the power of God constantly animating his bodily frame and enlivening his mind. "The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground" says the Genesis account (Gen. 2.7), "and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul". If that flow of life-power ceases, or if God withdraw it, death results, consciousness ends, and the inert body returns to the elements of which it is composed "ashes to ashes, dust to dust". In a vivid passage relating to the animal creation the Psalmist defines the process; "thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust" (Psa.104.29). Hope for a man's future life after death rests entirely with God, who can invest that life with a new body adapted to its new environment. This is what is involved in the Christian doctrine of the resurrection from the dead. Paul in 2 Cor. 5 talks of being "clothed upon" with a "house from heaven" following the dissolution of "our earthly house of this dwelling-place". The relation between such a resurrection to everlasting life and the contrasting destiny of the obdurately evil is laid down very plainly by our Lord when He said "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him" (Jn.3.36).
Withdrawal of the gift of life
In line with this principle, the Scriptures present the ultimate end of the sinner as withdrawal of the gift of life. If, at the end, sin and evil are to be no more, if all intelligent life in every sphere is to bow the knee to Jesus and give praise and worship to him, then there must come a time when sinners are no more. Says Job "they that plough iniquity and sow wickedness, reap the same. By the blast of God they perish, and by the breath of his nostrils are they consumed" (Job 4.8-9). "He that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul; all they that hate me love death" runs Prov.8.36. The two prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel unite in the terse declaration "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Jer.31.30; Ezek.18.4). David adds his word "The face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth" (Ps.34.14) and puts the responsibility squarely where it belongs in the brief maxim "Evil shall slay the wicked" in verse 21 of the same Psalm. These are not just a few casual observations having no particular authority behind them; they are expressions of a fundamental truth which these men, and others like them, being men of God profoundly influenced by his Holy Spirit, fully understood and held tenaciously. These writings form the true basis of Christian theology and must be given due heed on that account; they insist that the penalty for sin is withdrawal of life, the ending of conscious existence.
There are two words in the New Testament which have been productive of much misunderstanding. One is damnation and the other is everlasting. The first, damnation, has a meaning today which it did not bear in the seventeenth century when the Authorised Version was produced. At that time it meant, simply and positively, to be condemned; the nature and duration of the condemnation depended upon the circumstances of the case. Thus in Wycliffe's Bible the words of Jesus to the woman taken in adultery are "Woman, hath no man damned thee?" Likewise the "resurrection of damnation" of Jn.5.29 is literally a "resurrection to judgment" which at least brings the case of "those who have done evil" before the Judge for consideration. The Greek is rendered "judgment" and "condemnation" some eighty times and "damnation" only fourteen times, and the Revised Version has abandoned "damnation" altogether. Thus wherever the word "damnation" is found it must not necessarily be assumed that the condemnation is final and irrevocable. It may in some cases be limited in scope, as in Rom.14.23 "He that doubteth is damned if he eat" where the meaning is that the person partaking of the Lord's supper "unworthily" stands condemned or judged in his action, but not necessarily doomed.
Fire the symbol of destruction
One of the strangest and most misunderstood statements of Jesus is that in Matt.25, where the King in the parable says to the unworthy "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels . . . and these shall go away into everlasting punishment; but the righteous into life eternal". "Punishment" here is kolasis, a word which means, primarily, to cut off or lop the branches of a tree as in pruning, and in general indicated restraint or correction. From this it became a term for the restraint of offenders or criminals to prevent continuance of their misdeeds, and this is the sense in which it is used here. ("Fear hath torment" in 1 Jn.4.18, where "torment" is kolasis, is another example where restraint rather than punishment is the obvious meaning). Penal punishment is timoria, a totally different word. Here in Matt. 25 the contrast is between the everlasting life of the worthy, who enter into what elsewhere is called "the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom.8.21) and the everlasting restraint from sin of the unworthy. This is the same thing as the everlasting fire of the same passage. Another reference to the same judgment is found in Rev.20.11-15 where the King seated on the Great White Throne ‑ the "throne of his glory' of the Matt. 25 parable ‑ arrays all people before him to be judged "and they were judged every man according to their works". Here, under a very similar symbol to that employed in Matt.25, the unworthy are "cast into the lake of fire". Earlier in this 20th chapter of Revelation the Devil also has been cast into this lake of fire, a parallel allusion with the fate of the "devil and his angels" in Matt 25. In both passages the picture is one of judgment which proceeds throughout the Messianic Age, the "Day of Judgment", and the outcome at its end when the eternal issues, for good or for evil, are decided for every man.
The everlasting fire and the fiery lake are symbols for that destruction which overtakes all evil and every incorrigibly evil being. Isaiah saw the same thing when at the close of the vision of the new heavens and new earth he said of those who have right of entry into that eternal world "they shall go forth and look upon the carcases of the men who have transgressed against me for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched, and they shall be an abhorring of all flesh" (Isa.66.24). The worm is undying until there is nothing left upon which it can feed; the fire unquenched until it has consumed all there is burn ‑ just as in Jer.17.27 where a fire was to kindled in Jerusalem that "shall devour the palace of Jerusalem and it shall not be quenched".
Passages which speak of sinners destroyed by everlasting fire are metaphors taken sometimes from the story of the destruction of the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire from heaven. Sometimes too they are taken from the known use of the Valley Hinnom outside Jerusalem for idolatrous human sacrifice by fire in the days of the Hebrew kings and its later use for continuous burning of the city garbage. "Gehenna" ‑ the Greek form of Hinnom ‑ occurs fourteen times in the sayings of Jesus (rendered "Hell" in the AV). The idea in each case is that of destruction as complete as by fire Matt.3.12 and Luke 3.17 the chaff that has been separated from the wheat is burnt up with "unquenchable fire". In Matt.9.43-48 it is better to enter into life maimed than being whole to go to the unquenchable fire, the parallel passage in Matt.18.8 calling this the "everlasting fire". In the same passages it is shown that Gehenna and the unquenchable fires relate to one and the same thing, and in Matt.21.44 the assertion is plainly made that it is possible for God to "destroy both soul and body" in Gehenna. This corresponds with declarations such as Psa.92.7 "when all the workers of iniquity do flourish, it is that they shall be destroyed for ever".
Possibility of self-destruction
Thus understood, the consequence of sin in the face of full light and full opportunity is incurred solely by the individual's own choice and will. It has been suggested that deliberate continuance in evil doing can destroy a man's capacity for repentance and conversion to the good life. Perhaps a man is capable of destroying his own soul. One hundred years ago Dr. Paterson Smyth wrote "We must believe that through all eternity, if the worst sinner felt touched by the love of God and wanted to turn to him, that man would be saved. What we dread is that the man may not want, and so may have rendered himself incapable of doing so. We dread not God's will, but the man's own will. Character tends to permanence. Free will is a glorious but a dangerous prerogative. All experience leads towards the belief that a human will may so distort itself as to grow incapable of good". More recently Prof. Alexander Finlay said "All life depends upon fellowship with God. The possibility must remain that the time may come when a man, no longer being capable of fellowship with God, shall die and become extinct, simply because there is no life left in him, because his soul is dead". In a sermon delivered by Dr.Samuel Holmes, a Presbyterian minister of the United States, in 1907, he said "It is implicit in the teachings of both Jesus and Paul that when a soul, through its persistence in sin, comes to the point where it is morally irrecoverable, it comes also to its final death. A living creature remains alive only so long as it conforms to the conditions of living. Shall we think otherwise of the human soul . . . When a man has continued in sin, has gone on dwarfing his moral and spiritual nature until every appeal of God is in vain, is it not in accordance with the analogies of life that extinction is the certain outcome?" A noted Churchman of the late nineteenth century, Dr.C.A. Row, Prebendary of St. Pauls Cathedral, summed up his book "Future Retribution" in the words "the disease of moral evil, wilfully persisted in, for aught we know to the contrary, may be capable of destroying man as a conscious being ..… Inasmuch as man is destitute of self-existence the length of the period during which he will continue to exist must be dependent on the good pleasure of him who by his all-powerful energy maintains him in being every moment. ….. Evil beings will cease to exist whenever it pleases the All-merciful to cease to exert that energy which alone maintains in existence the evil and the good".
Eloquent in its brevity is the word of the Psalmist (Psa.37.10), a word expressed in literal down-to-earth terms which cannot be misunderstood: "For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be: yea, thou shall diligently consider his place, and it shall not be".