Hell and judgment[1]

ACTS 17: 22-31

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By Spencer D Gear

“When I die, I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive,” said the late British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who died in 1970. [2] We can hardly argue with his statement.  It is obviously true concerning the physical body. Three years after he published that statement, Russell died. But is it the whole truth? Does the real “me” disappear? Epicurus, the Greek pleasure-loving philosopher, said long ago, “What men fear is not that death is annihilation (complete destruction), but that it is not.” [3] Bertrand Russell said more than when he dies he rots. He sailed into Jesus when he said: “There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.” [4]

I read a fascinating poem by John Betjeman where he described his thoughts before a surgical procedure in the operating theatre. He was lying in a hospital in Oxford, England, listening to the tolling of St Giles’ bells. A few lines of the poem are:

    Intolerably sad, and profound
    St Giles’ bells are ringing round…
    Swing up! and give me hope of life,
    Swing down! and plunge the surgeon’s knife.
    I, breathing for a moment, see
    Death wing himself away from me
    And think, as on this bed I lie,
    Is it extinction when I die?…
    St Giles’ bells are asking now
    `And hast thou known the Lord, hast thou?’
    St Giles bells, they richly ring
    `And was that Lord our Christ the King?’
    St Giles’ bells they hear me call
    `I never knew the Lord at all…’

In the poem he goes on to speak of a vague belief in God that he had because he went to church:

    Now, lying in the gathering mist
    I know that Lord did not exist;
    Now, lest this ‘I’ should cease to be,
    Come, real Lord, come quick to me…
    Almighty Saviour, had I faith,
    There’d be no fight with kindly Death…
    The poem is called,

Before the Anaesthetic or A Real Fight [5]

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matt 7:13,14)

Christ made many statements that there is such a thing as judgment to come. Hebrews 9:27 gets right to the point: “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.”


It is important that we approach this matter of judgment with the right attitude of mind.


When Paul, the apostle, was in Athens, he spoke about the judgment in the intellectual atmosphere of Mars Hill (Acts 17). These people “spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (v.21). They just loved sitting down over the equivalent of a cup of tea or coffee, and toss ideas to & fro, debating them furiously, discussing them into the night, and then throw them all away. It was fun, an intellectual exercise.

The safest way to approach any subject that threatens to be serious and personally challenging is to laugh at it.  I guess people laughed at and mocked Noah as he preached about God’s impending judgment.

What did others think of Christ when he wept over Jerusalem because they were blind to their need of him and to the judgment to come. Rather emotional! Trying to frighten us into faith, hey? It was no idle speculation.  Jerusalem was besieged and utterly destroyed in AD 70.

Christ also said this about judgment, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28).

Judgment is not a matter for idle speculations.


I’ve heard of parents say things like, “If you don’t stop doing that, I’ll scratch your eyes out.” Vicious words, but an empty threat. But when a mother says, Don’t go near that fire — you may get burnt.” An empty threat?? Certainly not! It’s a realistic warning.

And when Christ repeatedly warns us of the extremely serious consequences of rejecting him, or of neglecting his offer of salvation, because of the judgment to come, is that an empty threat?  It’s a realistic warning; it could happen.


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For some reason, death and judgment are two forbidden themes in conversation today. The fashion is to live life to the full, concentrate on what you can see and touch — get all the thrills you can. And make Ray Price’s song our theme song for life: “For the good times!” Why be morbid and think about death and judgment?

Many dismiss the Christian faith because they say they want to be rational and realistic about life. Yet, at the same time, they are being utterly irrational and unrealistic about the only fact of life we can be sure of: One day we must die.  (There will be some exceptions: those who are alive at the second coming of Jesus Christ.)

What will happen at death?  When I die do I rot, or does life continue?

I can never understand why people find the subject of judgment difficult. The idea of accountability is built into all of life. Society would collapse without it. Everywhere, we must give account of our work, time, or money to someone.

Why should it then be unreasonable that a created being must give an account of his/her life to his or her Creator. It is plain common sense.

Paul, the apostle, when he was preaching on Mars Hill, Athens, was speaking to intelligent people. He noticed an inscription on one of their altars, “To an unknown god.”  Those people believed in the probable existence of some god, although they didn’t know him from experience.

So, to this intelligent, sincere audience, Paul spoke about Christ, the Judge (Acts 17:22-31).

We must have the right approach to judgment. It is:

  • not a matter for idle speculation;
  • it is not an empty threat;
  • it is not a subject that can be ignored.



God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.” (Acts 17:31)

Judgment is inescapable because it is universal. This idea of judgment is not very popular today. However, our gospel is deficient if we miss it out. Usually, there are a number of objections. Let’s consider a few of them briefly:



This is a common objection. The Bible gives two general answers:

    a.    Judgment is according to opportunity,

so that those with little or no opportunity of learning about Christ will be judged accordingly. At Athens, Paul said, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance” (Acts 17:31).

    b.    In the words of Abraham, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25).

We can leave the matter with absolute confidence in God’s hands.

If a person has a Bible, has access to a Bible, then he/she has heard or could find out. And the Bible is very clear, then, about his/her position. The discussion of the destiny of those who have never heard, by those who have heard, is academic.

Each of us has to give an account of his/her own life according to his/her own opportunities.

Another objection against hell and judgment is:



It’s a common protest, ” I don’t go to church, but I reckon I’ve got a pretty good chance of heaven, because I live a decent, honest and generous life. I’m a pretty good bloke. My life is just as good as many Christians; maybe even better.”

We can’t dispute that. By human standards, it is no doubt true that some unbelievers outshine believers by the thoughtfulness and kindness of their lives. The only basic difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is that the Christian knows that he needs a Saviour, and has asked Christ personally to be the Saviour that he needs.

The basic sin is that we usurp — take over — God’s place at the centre of our lives.

Most people, by being the centre of reference of their own lives, are saying in effect to Christ: “Depart from me.  I want you to leave me alone.  I do not want you God, to interfere with my life.  I want to be king of my own castle.  Therefore, depart from me.”

If a person says that now, and goes on saying that, surely it is fair that Christ should say to that person on the Day of Judgment, “Depart from Me.”  It was surely the person’s own decision.

Another objection is:


Some who give this objection are thinking of those grotesque pictures from the middle ages, that show tortured bodies writhing in the furnace. Pictures like this obscure the real teaching of Christ and don’t even begin to convey the true severity of hell. It is far greater and more serious than that of a furnace.

J.I. Packer explains some of the terms which Jesus used when he taught, soberly and deliberately, about hell:

  • the ‘worm does not die'(Mark 9:48), an image, it seems, for the endless dissolution of the personality by a condemning conscience;
  • ‘fire’ for the agonising awareness of God’s displeasure;
  • ‘outer darkness’ for knowledge of the loss, not merely of God, but of all good, and everything that made life seem worth living;
  • `gnashing of teeth’ for self-condemnation and self-loathing. [6]

These things are dreadful. But they are not arbitrary things inflicted on us by a God who loves to hand out punishment. Nobody stands under the wrath of God unless he/she has chosen to do so.  By hell, God’s action in wrath is to give people what they chose in all its implications.  God is doing no more than confirming the judgment people have placed on themselves.  Many Calvinists would disagree, proclaiming that God predestines people to heaven and to hell.  That is not the view here espoused.

This partly answers the next (and last) objection:



At face value, this seems to be a powerful, irrefutable objection. However, how can we explain the fact that Christ (who more than anyone, showed us the love of God) also spoke to us more than anyone about the judgment of God?

What is possibly the greatest ‘love’ verse in the whole Bible, John 3:16, clearly implies the possibility of appalling judgment: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The astonishing measure of God’s love is seen only when we admit that we all deserve to perish and to be excluded from his presence.  The depth of God’s love is such that we need not, but can know forgiveness.

Repeatedly we are told:

  • God desires all people to be saved;
  • God knows our inclinations lead us down the broad road to destruction;
  • Therefore, in his love, God puts obstacles in our path: the Bible, churches, Christian friends, Christian books, radio & TV programs, trials and difficulties in our lives,
  • and above all the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross.

If a person rushes past all of these, who is to blame?

Most of us disapprove of deceit, lies, theft, bribery, murder, and so on. What would you think of an absolute power in the universe who always turned a blind eye to corruption — moral corruption?  There would be complete and utter chaos. Unless God detests sin and evil with a great loathing, he cannot be a God of love.

Australian doctor, John Hercus [7] put it very shrewdly:

The truth is that men never really have any problem, never any real problem, in understanding the strong, awesome judgment of God. They may complain about it, but they have no difficulty at all in understanding the ruthless judgment that declares that black is black because only the purest white is white. True, we hear from right, left and centre, from ignorant pagans and even highly-trained theologians, the ignorant prattle about ‘All this hell-fire and brimstone talk isn’t my idea of God. I think God is a God of love and I don’t think He’d hurt a fly.’ But it is easy to know why they talk like that; it’s because they are terrified of the alternative.”


If this doctrine of hell is not true, then heaven itself is meaningless. How could heaven be heaven if it were full of people who had no time for God? The apostle Paul wrote:

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (I Cor. 6:9,10)The widely accepted theory of universalism sounds attractive. The idea is that everyone will one day be in heaven, regardless of his or her attitudes towards God in this life. This view makes nonsense of heaven itself.

Somebody put it this way:

The effects of universalism at a funeral service will be startling. Whether you are conducting a funeral service of a Nero or St Paul, or Eichman or Schweitzer, of Hitler or Niemoller, of an agnostic or Augustine, or an atheist or Athanasius, of Judas or James, you will be able to commit them all equally `in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ [8]

The astonishing point is that this is quite possible if all have repented and put their trust in Christ. Otherwise, it makes sheer mockery of the justice and holiness of Almighty God.

If the doctrines of judgment and hell are not true, then sin pays. We can be as selfish as we like, do whatever we like, steal, lie, sleep around, murder…There is no reason to have any standards at all. Why bother to consider other people if there is no day of reckoning?

Richard Wurmbrand, the Romanian pastor who spent 14 years in a communist prison, 3 of them in solitary confinement, put it this way:

“The cruelty of atheism is hard to believe when man has no faith in the reward of good or the punishment of evil. There is no reason to be human. There is no restraint from the depths of evil which is in man. The communist torturers often said, ‘There is no God, no hereafter, no punishment for evil. We can do what we wish.” I have heard one torturer even say, ‘I thank God, in whom I don’t believe, that I have lived to this hour when I can express all the evil in my heart.’ He expressed it in unbelievable brutality and torture inflicted on prisoners.” [9]


Perhaps the most sobering truth which comes from Christ, concerning the Day of the Lord (the Day of Judgment), is that it will take people by surprise. Paul told the people at Athens: “God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world.” Christ said, “You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Luke 12:40). We do not know when that time will come. It is unexpected; therefore, be ready. It will come “like a thief in the night.”

The great Scots preacher, Robert Murray McCheyne, was once preaching on the coming of Christ and the judgment to follow. He asked his elders, one by one, before the service, “Do you think that Christ will come again tonight? One by one they all replied, “No, I don’t think so.” Then McCheyne announced his text: “The Son of Man cometh at an hour that ye think not.” [10]

Those of us who know of the suddenness of death should surely understand the suddenness of the final day of judgment. Some people with a terminal illness linger on for months and years before death arrives. Others, like my own father, kissed his wife goodbye to go off to work and he never returned. At the age of 57, he dropped dead of a fatal heart attack. Death was very sudden and unexpected for him. Because of God’s grace to him through Christ, I have the assurance that I will meet him again in God’s heaven.

Christ expressed the urgency and seriousness of this matter in a dramatic story: about two men, one rich and the other poor. One lived a wonderfully free and independent life, free of all those narrow restrictions of religion, free of God himself.

The other, Lazarus, was a poor, pathetic creature in comparison, but he knew and loved the Lord. Both men died: death was almost the only experience, apart from birth, which they had in common. Suddenly there was a great separation. One found himself in heaven, the other in hell.

This is how Christ described the feelings of that rich man:

“In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” (Luke 16:23,24)If it were like our day, there would be an obituary in the Jerusalem Times,and I could imagine that he had a magnificent funeral. But in hell he simply cried out, “I am in agony in this fire.”

Here it was at last — the agonising awareness of God’s displeasure. He, at last, saw himself as he really was. He knew how empty his life had been — full of worldly things that he had to leave behind, but empty of God.

Christ makes it very clear that hell is a place of eternal separation from everything good, a place where a person will see that God is right and that he is wrong, and will know at last the glory of God — but he can never experience it.

In this story in Luke 16, Christ talks of “a great chasm fixed.” There is no second chance after death!

Where will you be one minute after you die? [11]

I understand that in a cemetery in Indiana, USA, there is an old tombstone with the epitaph:

Pause, stranger, when you pass me by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you will be
So prepare for death and follow me.

Somebody who walked past the tombstone read the words and scratched his response:

To follow you I’m not content
Until I know which way you went. [12]

Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25, NIV)

For a more comprehensive challenge to consider your eternal destiny, I enthusiastically recommend, Robert A. Morey, Death and the Afterlife [13], John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? [14] and Eryl Davies, Condemned For Ever! [15]


[1] I wish to acknowledge my indebtedness for most of the content of this message to the late, David Watson. See David Watson, chapter 3, “Hell: and a God of love,” My God is Real. Westchester, Illinois: Good News Publishers (Crossway Books), 1970. As of 15th May 2002, the book was out of print according to the web site of Koorong Books, Australia.

[2] Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian. London: Unwin Books, 1967, 47. I am indebted to Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 1995, p. 3, for directing me to the exact reference for this quote. It is in David Watson, but without bibliographical reference.

[3] In Watson, ibid.

[4] Russell, pp. 22-23, in Peterson, p. 4.

[5] In Watson.

[6] Ibid., pp. 35-36.

[7] David, IVP, 1969, in ibid., p. 37.

[8] In Watson, p. 38.

[9] Tortured for Christ. Hodder & Stoughton, 1967, in Watson, p. 38.

[10] In Watson, p. 39.

[11] See Erwin W. Lutzer, One Minute After You Die. Chicago: Moody Press, 1997.

[12] In ibid., pp. 10-11

[13] Robert A. Morey, Death and the Afterlife. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1984.

[14] John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? Darlington, Co. Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1993.

[15] Eryl Davies, Condemned For Ever! Welwyn, Hertfordshire, England: Evangelical Press, 1987.

Hell is as real as heaven. 

There will be no second chance!

Copyright (c) 2007 Spencer D. Gear.   This document last updated at Date: 7 October 2015.