Bible Study Theology

1 Peter 3:18-19; 4:5-6 Is Hell really eternal unending punishment?

I don’t plan on answering that question definitively in this post, but I chose it as the post title because it is something that many sincere Christians ask, and I hope that those who are asking it will read this post and be helped along in their search of answers.

I clearly remember a time in my life when eternal conscious torment in hell was a doctrine that I was finding harder and harder to accept.  I believe that many people today are in that place and I hope that by sharing just a little bit here of what God taught me, they may be spared from the grievous error into which I very nearly fell.

First of all, I want to challenge anyone who is questioning the historic orthodox doctrine of eternal conscious torment in hell to ask himself…

“Why am I questioning the reality of eternal punishment?”

If you are honest, I think you would have to admit, as I had to, that the starting point of my thinking was not what God has revealed to us in his inspired Word about his justice, hell and eternal punishment, but rather it was my own philosophical stumbling blocks.  In other words, it is very hard for us to come to grips with eternal punishment, so we go to the Scriptures trying to find a reason why this can’t be true.  Perhaps we were taught about hell in our childhood without ever understanding the biblical basis for the doctrine.  So as adults we begin to question what we were taught because it just doesn’t seem fair that some sinners would be saved and others would be lost.  It doesn’t seem to accord with our concept of love that God would allow a person to suffer an infinite, eternal punishment.

Are you willing to make what God has revealed your starting point, rather than starting with your questions?  Are you willing to study what God has revealed with an open mind?  When we start with our questions, we are putting God on trial and trying to fit his character and being into our human understanding rather than starting with what is greater and infinite and letting it shape our limited, finite understanding.

Try to come with grips with the large portions of Scripture where God’s pure and holy hatred of sin is undiluted.  This is the value of reading the Old Testament prophets.  They break us and show us our wickedness so that we are then in a position to read a chapter like Isaiah 53 and begin to grasp the magnitude of what Jesus did for us when we understand that the wrath in the cup that Jeremiah was told to take to the nations (Jer. 25:15) was drunk for us by God the Son himself (Luke 22:42).  To say that Jesus did not suffer God’s wrath for us is a convenient route to take philosophically, but it is not what God reveals to us in his Word (see my review of The Shack for some of the biblical teaching on God’s just and holy judgment of sin).

God also showed me my pride in questioning his revelation concerning eternal punishment in hell.  Not only was I stubbornly refusing to come to grips with what he was saying to me in his word, I was also claiming that it was unjust for him to condemn me to hell for my sins.

Of course, my concern wasn’t for myself, so I thought.  I was concerned for others who hadn’t yet come to Christ.  What about them?  How could God send them to hell and not me?  Doesn’t that sound noble?  Doesn’t it sound merciful and loving to question how God could condemn poor, lost sinners to eternal punishment.

But what I was missing was the important scriptural doctrine of the unity of the human race.  The problem is not my sin over against your sin.  The problem is our sin.  In Adam, we are all sinners together.  We bear our guilt together as well as individually (Romans 5:12-21).

So when I say, “God, how can you justly punish that poor sinner with eternal punishment”, I am really saying, “God, how can you justly punish me with eternal punishment.” If I am not willing to accept that I deserve eternal punishment then how can I accept what Jesus did for me at the cross?  Do I think that he is saving me because there is something in me that is worth saving?  If so, then I am clinging to my own filthy rags of self-righteousness rather than casting my self wholly on him.  And if I deserve eternal punishment, then so does every other sinner.  That is why I should pray for those who have not believed with humility, recognizing that it is our sin of unbelief and rebellion that needs to be covered with Jesus’ blood.

This is already a huge post, but I want to treat at least one Bible passage that is sometimes appealed to as an argument that hell is not eternal punishment.  Actually, there are many other more important passages to deal with, but this one happened to be the one that motivated me to write this post in the first place, so I’ll just deal with it.

1 Peter 3:18-19

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.

Many people believe that these verses teach that those who have died without accepting Jesus will eventually be released from hell as they are “brought to their senses” and come to trust in Christ.  Hell, in this way of thinking, is like the “hell” that the prodigal son went through and that brought him to his senses and caused him to come back to Christ (this is only one of several possible interpretations that have been offered). But is Peter really saying here that Jesus, after his resurrection, went and proclaimed the gospel to people from Noah’s day who had died and were in a spiritual prison awaiting judgment day?

1 Peter 4:5-6 seems to refer to the same thing…

5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

Is this verse also teaching that the good news of salvation in Jesus is preached to people after they have died?

I don’t believe it is, and here is why…

In the context of these verses, Peter is talking about suffering as believers when we take a stand for Jesus and proclaim his gospel (3:13-17).  Immediately before the verses in question, he says, (v. 17) “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” Verse 17 is crucial to understand.  If it is better to suffer for doing good, than for doing evil, then there is a suffering for evil that is possible to fall into.  Is Peter here only referring to suffering in this world?  We shall see…

To continue his argument, in v. 18, Peter reminds his readers that Jesus suffered for their sin on the cross so that they would not have to suffer God’s judgment “for doing evil” (end of v. 17).  Jumping ahead to v. 21, Peter reminds them that through their water baptism, which was an outward demonstration of their faith in what Jesus did for them in his death and resurrection, they were saved from having to suffer “for doing evil” (remember v. 17 again).

Now let’s look at the verses in between v. 18 and v. 21.  Here Peter uses the example of the sinners who were judged in Noah’s day to draw a contrast between those who do not have to suffer for doing evil (because they were united with Christ through faith demonstrated in water baptism), and those who do have to suffer for doing evil (because they did not believe).  Those who survived the flood of water represent those who are saved through the water of baptism.  But the water that saved some was also judgment for others who did not believe.

The sinners of Noah’s day had opportunity to repent of their sins and find salvation in Noah’s ark.  But how did they have this opportunity?  Most people assume that the Genesis account says that Noah, during the entire time he was building the ark, was also warning people of the coming flood, but if you look again in Genesis, it never says that Noah preached.  The only references to Noah preaching are in the New Testament.  One is in 2 Peter 2:5, where Noah is called a “herald of righteousness.” The other is right here in 1 Peter 3.  Notice that it says that God was “patiently waiting” in the days of Noah.  Waiting for what?  Peter himself answers that question in his second book (2 Peter 3:5-9).  He says that just as God patiently waited for people to repent in Noah’s day, he is also patiently waiting for them to repent now, before he again comes to bring judgement on the earth.

So what does all of this have to do with Jesus preaching to the spirits in prison?  The answer is that Peter is referring to the fact that Jesus, in the Spirit, was patiently preaching through Noah, in Noah’s day, to the people that were in danger of coming under the judgment of the flood.

Let’s say that my brother gives me a Macbook Pro for my 30th birthday because I am moving to Indonesia to live.  Ten years later, it can be said of my brother, “yeah, he gave a Macbook Pro to his brother in Indonesia.”  It doesn’t mean that I was in Indonesia when he gave it to me, but that in contrast to the brother that lives in Ecuador, it was the brother who now lives in Indonesia that got the new laptop.

So we should understand Peter’s words in v. 19 this way: “…in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits who are (now) in prison.” The spirits of those people who were warned by Jesus, who in the Spirit used Noah as an instrument to warn them, are now in prison.  They are facing eternal judgment because they did not respond in faith to what the Spirit of Jesus was revealing to them by offering them an ark of salvation to get into before the judgment of the flood fell.

Summarizing, these verses in 1 Peter 3 do not teach that people can have the good news preached to them after they die and before the judgment, rather they teach that Jesus suffered for evil, and that if we will put our faith in him, we will not have to suffer for our evil deeds, even though we may have to suffer for doing good.

As Peter continues on talking about Christian suffering, we come to the second reference that seems to imply that the gospel will be preached to people after they die…

1 Peter 4:5-6

5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

Chapter 4 begins with this reasoning:  If Jesus suffered the death penalty for the evil deeds that we were guilty of, then we no longer have to live enslaved to evil human passions.  He doesn’t state it explicitly, but I think his implicit reason for this is that we are united with Christ in his death so that we, with Christ, died to our sins.

He goes on to say that those who are not in Christ do live enslaved to evil human passions, and that they will have to, “give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (v. 5).  In other words, even though those who are not believers think it is pointless, even ridiculous that we do not join them in doing “what feels right,” they will eventually discover that they are going to have to account for their actions.

Then Peter says, This is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead…” Here again, just as he did in chapter 3, Peter is not talking about preaching that occurs after the person has died, but rather preaching that brought people to repentance before they died (see my previous illustration of the Macbook Pro).  These people who “are (now) dead,” had the gospel preached to them SO THAT (this is why…) they would be able to stand in the coming judgment.

Even though these believers seemed to come under the judgment of physical death (this is the meaning of, “… though judged in the flesh the way people are” )  they will live spiritually eternally because Jesus suffered their penalty in their place (“…they might live in the spirit the way God does.”)

So again, the teaching here is not that there will be opportunity for people to be saved after death, but rather that there is a judgment that is coming and for those who have sought refuge in Christ, there is hope that the suffering we experience now is not the portent of eternal judgment.

But for those who have not sought refuge in Christ, the suffering of believers is a sign to them that if they do not repent, they will be judged.  This is why Peter closes chapter 4 with these words:

“15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And…

“If the righteous is scarcely saved,

what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

To conclude my post, I want to lovingly and humbly plead with anyone who may be contemplating the possibility that God will not judge sinners eternally with an infinite punishment.  Seek God in his word.  Spend more time there than alone with your human doubts.  Don’t be content to latch on to a few scriptures that may seem to teach what you want to hear, but ask God to show himself to you, in all of his infinite justice and love that was displayed at the cross of Jesus.  It is my prayerful confidence that he will.

Bible Study Cross-Centered Life Theology

Plumbing the depths of mercy and grace

I was thinking today about the difficulty we have in truly understanding the extent of God’s mercy and grace toward his children.  

Let’s start with some definitions:  By mercy, I’m referring to God’s love expressed in his not treating us as we deserve to be treated.  By grace, I’m referring to God’s love expressed in his giving us what we don’t deserve to receive.  The Newsboys say it well…

When we don’t get what we deserve… it’s a real good thing…

When we get what we don’t deserve… it’s a real good thing…

The first line is mercy; the second is grace. 

Now, the problem lies in trying to comprehend the extent of God’s mercy and grace to us.  In order to fully grasp God’s mercy, we must be able to fully comprehend what we deserve from God.  Because we have difficulty fully grasping the wrath of God against sin, we struggle to fully appreciate the mercy God shows us when he saves us from that wrath.  

There are two primary places we can look in order to grasp more fully God’s mercy:  The Cross of Christ, where God’s wrath was put on Jesus as our substitute, and Hell, where God’s wrath will be poured out on unrepentant sinners for all eternity.  Both of these are revealed to us in the Scripture, and we have access to them as we meditate on Scripture and are taught by the Holy Spirit.

Likewise, in order to fully grasp God’s grace, we must be able to fully comprehend what we have received from God.  I believe that just as we struggle to comprehend God’s wrath,  we also struggle to fully appreciate just what we have received in our salvation.

Our salvation is so much more than just God’s merciful forgiveness of our sins.  He doesn’t just forgive us and then let us start over again to prove our ability to serve him and follow him as our God.  He heaps upon us blessing after blessing, by virtue of our union with the Lord Jesus Christ.  In Christ, we receive what Jesus deserves.  This is the “spiritual inheritance” that is mentioned so often in the Bible.

Only in eternity will we be able to fully grasp God’s grace because we will experience in heaven the fullness of our salvation.  We will receive our spiritual inheritance that right now is “kept in heaven” for us (1 Peter 1:4).

Only in eternity will we be able to fully grasp God’s mercy because we will witness God’s righteous judgment of unbelievers. Revelation 14:9-10 says, 

And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.

 We will be “in Christ” for all eternity, and in his presence, we will see what we deserve to receive, and I believe we will appreciate the cross as never before.  This idea seemed very radical to me when I first read it in one of Jonathan Edward’s  sermons, but I believe Edwards is faithfully teaching us what God has revealed in his Word.