The Scriptural Doctrine of Hell
Archibald G. Brown, February 24, 1878, East London Tabernacle
"For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to Hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment; if He did not spare the ancient world when He brought the flood on its ungodly people; if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly — if this is so, then the Lord knows how to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment!" 2 Peter 2:4-9
I know that in selecting my theme for this evening I am venturing to swim against the tide of public taste. I doubt not that, in many quarters, the sermon of tonight will be severely criticized, and by not a few regarded as a proof that I am irreclaimable and incapable of advancing with modern thought. Every age has had its popular heresy. For a while it has run like wildfire, and then gradually died out to give place to another. Any casual reader of so-called Christian literature must know the distinctive feature of this nineteenth century. There has arisen in the midst of the church an anti-Christ which is known by the name of 'modern thought', at whose altars tens of thousands are bowing the knee, and offering their devotion. There is a horrid malaria abroad — a malaria breeding doubt and skepticism, and giving birth to wholesale practical infidelity. Surely the gospel of the present day might be rendered — 'He who doubts shall be saved, and he who believes shall be counted a fool.'
All things are now being called into question, and the work of the modern critic is either to destroy or tone down, or alter the word of God, until, were our fathers to rise from the grave, they would find it difficult to recognize it as the same old book on which they lived, and on whose truths they dared to die. The eternal covenant of God is torn up with a glib remark and a smile of contempt by some boy-censor. The threatenings of God are having all the thunder taken out of them; and now let any one venture to say that he believes in such doctrines as the sovereign grace of God, an atoning sacrifice, and a doom of unspeakable horror awaiting the man who dies unconverted — and if he is not derided, he will at least be looked upon with contemptuous pity.
Now, the fiercest onslaught has been made upon the doctrine of God's severity against sin, and the reason why I have selected this topic this evening is that, somehow or another the evil is finding its way into all the homes of our church members. Papers — and specially one — which profess to be Christian, prostitute their influence, week by week, in bringing before their readers all sorts of new-fangled notions, and thinly veiled blasphemy. I do not marvel that the doctrine of eternal punishment has been the subject of fiercest attack. It is only natural that man should desire to believe that he can live in sin with comparative impunity. I wonder not that the natural man says, 'Only prove to us that there is no perdition, and you shall be the preacher of our choice.' Such teaching is sure to be popular.
There is also an immense amount of jargon about the 'universal fatherhood' of God. We are told that God is so good, so kind, so indulgent, that he cannot possibly visit a sinner's sin with the dire doom that Scripture language declares.
Now, I want, this evening to take you right away from the enervating air of the valley of modern thought, up into the bracing atmosphere of Peter's words. I want them to blow upon you, clear and strong and crisp as the air we have felt coming off the glacier. And, young men, as I am preaching especially to you, I say that, if you are worthy of the name, you will never mind being asked to look a fact straight in the face. If we are wrong, then at some future time show us so; but I think you will see that there is a need-be for us to dwell upon the theme.
Suppose there be no such Hell as we have been led to believe — then I am as well off when I die as any. But if, on the other hand, there is an eternal Hell — where then is the derider of it? If it is a mistake, yet it has been a blessed one, for it has often times inflamed our zeal to try and bring men to Christ. But O sirs, if it is no mistake, and Hell has all the horrors our fathers believed — then I beseech you to fall not into such incredible folly as to be damned in order to find out its truth!
Now, observe that Peter in this chapter is just dealing with this very thing. There were many false teachers abroad and he says in the 3rd verse, 'In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.' And to show that God has a judgment for sinners, he adduces three examples. Let me read the verses to you. You will find the first illustration of the fact in the 4th verse, 'God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to Hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment.' Now comes the second. 'God did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others.' For a third example — 'God condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.' Then learn this — and you get it in the 9th verse — 'If this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment!'
Putting all we desire to say into one sentence, it is this: it is not our work to say what God ought to be, or what he should do — but to find out what he has done, assured that his performing an action is proof of its justice.
Down, puny reason! Will you dare to say that, if God acts in this way or that, he is unjust? Has God so acted? If so — then it must be right. God's action is its own guarantee of holiness.
Now, you will see that in our text we have shown us:
first, that God's severity on sin is a solemn fact; and then
secondly, that this particular act of severity, namely, the destruction of the cities of the plain, is to be an example for all ages unto those who live ungodly.
I. Now let us to our first point, namely, that our text shows that GOD'S SEVERITY ON SIN IS A SOLEMN FACT.
I would seek to force this thought home because I am persuaded that, unless I can make you realize it, all the invitations of the gospel will be of little worth to you. Unless a man believes that there is something to flee from — it is a waste of time to tell him to flee. Unless a man believes there is a doom to escape — it is folly, if not impertinence, to keep saying to him, 'Escape for your life!'
Now let us see whether the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Elijah, is the sort of God that modern thought gives us — a God who has been well described as a sort of effeminate incarnation of sentimental benevolence. I venture to say that the God I read about in the Scriptures is no more like the God of modem thought, than he is like the heathen deities of mythology! Let us, then, dwell on these three facts which Peter brings forward in order to show that God has severity on sin and sinners.
The first is the vengeance which he executed on the sinning angels. You have this in the 4th verse: 'God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to Hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment.' I have often marveled that those who are so ready to accuse God of lack of love when the perdition of men is mentioned, have not seen that they have greater cause to arraign him at their bar for having cast the angels headlong into Hell. If it is unjust and unkind to deal out eternal punishment to fallen men — then how is it that they are silent about the doom of the fallen angels? God made bright spirits, capable of standing, yet free to fall; and some did fall, and there was war in Heaven, and a third part of the stars of Heaven were swept into eternal darkness, and, as we read here, hurled down to Hell and 'delivered into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment!'
Young men, can you not see that every argument which can be employed against the ultimate punishment of men, applies with equal force against the punishment of the sinful angels? Am I told, as we are repeatedly, that there is such a nobility about man, such a natural grandeur, that it is almost impossible to imagine that God can ever consign so glorious and intellectual a being to perdition! I reply, What is man, after all, compared with the angels and the archangels who have received their eternal doom? Nobler in being, far, were those sons of the morning, pure spirits who stood before the eternal throne of God and sang his praises, and mightier still in intellect. Yet when they sinned, did the nobility of their nature save them from the Hell that awaited them?
Am I told, 'Oh — but, surely, there can not be eternal punishment because it would disarrange God's beautiful universe! It would be a discordant note in the great realm.' I reply, The angels lived nearer God than man; and yet when they sinned, they were turned out turned out of Heaven and cast into Hell! When I see the sinning angels falling over Heaven's brink into Hell, I see something before which my spirit stands appalled — but something which makes me say, 'The God of the angels, and the God I worship, is an dreadful God when his anger is aroused!'
Peter then passes on, you will see, to the second illustration which is in the 5th verse — 'God did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others'. Now here the destruction was more complete. In the former case a glorious company of untold legions remained to sing their sovereign's praises — but now God speaks the word, and the foundations of the great deep are broken up. How many are saved? 'A few, that is, eight souls.'
Come, Mr Modern Thinker — you who are so shocked at the idea of God ever pouring out his wrath on any — how do you account for this? Does this look like 'universal fatherhood'? Does this look like an indulgent father who knows nothing of righteous indignation against sin? It has been computed that the population of the world at that time was as great as now, owing to the longevity of the race, and yet the waters rose until the few — the eight — who rode in that ark were the sole remnant of a world that God had made.
Come, open your ears and hear the shrieks of the drowning; hear the cries of the strong swimmer in his last agony, and account for it, if you can, on any other ground than that God is a hater of sin — that when the accursed thing reaches a climax, he pours his wrath upon it — ay, though doing so destroys a world he fashioned.
Then we come to the third illustration, and I think you will see that they become stronger and yet more fearful. There were eight saved from the flood — but in the case of the cities of the plain only four were rescued, and out of the four one of them was turned into a pillar of salt, because she dared to look back!
I wish I had the power to paint in words the scene which this text presents. When going lately among some of the loveliest villages and towns that lie round about Naples, under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, I thought I had an idea of what these cities of the plain must have appeared like — exquisite for their beauty, charming for situation; and yet, as old Matthew Henry well remarks, it is very rare to find God's pity, where there is much of God's plenty. Generally speaking, the fairest spots on earth are the places where sin is most rife, and iniquity most rampant, as if to give the lie to the statement that nature leads to nature's God.
Now, the sin of the cities of the plain had waxed to such an extent that God's indignation burned and he rained down a fire from Heaven.
Now, Mr Modern Thinker, you who are so shocked at anything that is dreadful, you who, I have no doubt, will go home from this tabernacle and say that the sermon was hardly fit for polite ears — how do you account for this? Does this look like 'universal fatherhood'?
Behold yon black cloud gathering over the city! Listen to the hissing of that hail of fire. Mark that pitiless flaming sleet sweeping down across the plain! Come, sir, it may be that some of the flashes that devour the city may open your eyes to a solemn fact. Do you hear the crackling of the timbers? Hark to those piteous cries and shrieks! It is fearful!
Ay, and, mark you, even to this hour it remains the witness of God's hatred of sin, for those plains were blasted with a barrenness that shall last until the end of time! Walk by the shores of the Dead Sea, where once those cities stood. Death reigns! No fish glide in its deep, no flowers bloom upon the shore; and the silent voice of that Dead Sea is this — 'God condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.'
Now these are the three instances Peter brings forward; but do you suppose that they are the only three? Far from it. I will, however — but mention others, as time presses.
How about the death of the first born in Egypt? Why do not those who are so ready to charge God with being cruel, accuse him of harshness in relation to Egypt? I suppose that in Egypt there were more people than there are in London tonight, and yet in every house the first born was found dead, and from end to end of Egypt's land a great wail of grief went up. Does that look like 'universal fatherhood'?
Go a step farther. We all joy with Israel when it passes through the Red Sea. In spirit we clap our hands with Miriam as she strikes her timbrel. It was a glorious deliverance for Israel. But how about the other side? Was it very glorious for Pharaoh and all his armies? We rejoice with the Israelites — but let us remember the fact that their salvation meant the destruction of all the chivalry of Egypt.
Look yet, again, farther on in history. Do you see Sennacherib's army covering all the land? Go look into those silent tents; lift up those trumpets that have never been blown; handle those spears that have never been placed in rest; twang the bow that has never sent the arrow — and then account for the scene of death, if you can, on any other ground than that our God has a hatred against sin, and will, when it pleases him, strike the sinner to the dust!
But you turn round and say, 'Ay, Mr Brown — but you forget that all these examples are in the Old Testament. We are not living in Old Testament days.' Then come with me to the New Testament.
It is now customary to describe the views of future punishment held by most of us as 'medieval', and to declare that our ideas are mainly gleaned from what monks wrote and said, and from pictures to be found in old galleries. I suppose I have seen about as many of the old masters in the galleries of Europe as most — but I must acknowledge I have never yet seen any picture from hand of medieval artist half so dreadful as some of the descriptions that fell from our Lord's lips!
'Medieval' is it, to speak about weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth? These words came not from the lips of any mortal man. They fell from the same lips that said, 'Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' Neither Paul, nor Peter, nor any of the apostles, ever uttered such words as leaped from the lips of the Man of Sorrows. Christ's descriptions of Hell are the most fearful that we have! It is the lips of infinite love that speak of being cut asunder, and about burning with the fire that is never quenched!
One other thought, and I conclude this point. To my mind, at least, the most awful proof of the divine severity against sin, is to be found in the fact of the atonement. I have no doubt there are many here who not only remember — but, with the speaker, revere the memory of Henry Ollerenshaw, who used to labor in Bethnal Green. If ever there was a man of God in the east of London, it was he. I remember well some years back, when the new views, as they are called, concerning the doom of the wicked were getting popular, that he said to me, 'Mark if with them, the views of men concerning the atonement are not altered. When one goes, the other will go with it.' And what is the fact? Find those who most deride the idea of an awful doom awaiting the sinner, and you will find those who rob the death of Christ of its sacrificial element. It is the logical sequence. If there was nothing much to save me from — then it was almost superfluous for the incarnate God to die upon the tree!
But, O brethren, if you want to measure the deep horrors of the lost — you must measure them by the cross of Christ! It is his groans, his tears, his cries — which best tell what Hell means. Your breaking heart, Lord Jesus — your flowing blood — your death-cry of 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' — these are the things that say to me more than all the cities of the plain, 'There is an awful judgment to come upon the sinner for his sins!'
I trust that this fact is believed by all of you. God give it power! There is an awful doom for every man and woman in this sanctuary who dies impenitent rejecting the offer of the gospel of God.
II. Now, then, let us look at the next point. THIS PARTICULAR ACT OF SEVERITY MENTIONED IN OUR TEXT, IS TO BE AN EXAMPLE FOR ALL AGES.If those of you who have Bibles will look at them you will see that it says, 'making them' — that is the cities of the plain — 'an example unto those that after should live ungodly.' Then this is not to be shelved as a bit of past history. We are not to put the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah on one side, and say, 'Oh, that will keep as an interesting relic of the past.' It is not to be treated as something with which we have nothing to do. 'No,' says Peter, 'you look at it, for God intended it throughout all ages to be an example unto the ungodly.'
Just three weeks ago I was staying in that most beautiful but most depraved of cities, Naples, and, looking across its charming bay, I could see, just in front of our window, Mount Vesuvius. I need hardly say that there the sky was not simply clear or blue. It was such a dazzling blue as we poor unfortunate Britishers know little, if anything, about. As I gazed upon that mountain it seemed to me as if it were painted on ivory. Everything about it was so softened. The smoke that came from the mountain was pearly white. It rose in slow folds, fold over fold, fold over fold, and before the gentle breeze it stretched away for miles until lost in the dim distance. It really seemed more like the white streamer of peace flying from the crater's mouth, than anything else.
And there, all up the sides of Vesuvius, were the little white cottages of the peasants. And under its shadow were smiling villages, and it seemed almost impossible to believe that Vesuvius could do any harm. I was almost inclined to think of Vesuvius as modern thinkers dream of God — that surely all the old fire has burned out. Still, there was some smoke rising which showed me that, though at that time no burning lava was pouring out upon its iron-bound flanks, yet it could do it again.
Three weeks ago tomorrow I took a drive out, and I thought I would go and see this innocent-looking mountain. Still the smoke came away in white folds, and, as we neared it, the driver pointing to the foundations of some houses, and said that those houses were built on lava. Then, after all, this mountain can not be quite so harmless as it looks. And, by and by, we found that the road on either side was lined with lava, and now our carriage wheels rattled over the lava which had once poured down the mountain side. There, a little to the right, the ancient town Herculaneum once stood; and a little farther on we entered Pompeii. I wish I could make you see it, as I beheld it. I think you would understand the text better then.
I suppose most of you are aware that it was in the year 79 A.D. that this strange city of the dead was covered, and that for nearly eighteen centuries it has been buried, and only one third of it at the present time excavated. We walked along its silent streets, and there we could see the rut which the wheels of the chariots had made as they rattled on their noisy way. We went into the silent houses on either side of the streets. Where were the owners? There were none there to refuse us entrance. We walked into the houses; we looked at the frescoes on the walls, some of them as fresh as if painted only yesterday.
You must remember that it was not covered with burning lava, as is popularly supposed — that would have destroyed the city. There flowed a torrent of boiling mud which cooled and caked, and then over that there went the burning lava; and this again became like iron, so that there was the city sealed up airtightly, and, for 1,700 years, the world forgot that there was such a place as Pompeii. But we not only saw streets covered with the marks of chariot wheels, and houses with their frescoes. There were other sights sadder far. There were the relics of the past. There I saw the marble table, still standing in the garden as it was left that afternoon; and there was a bottle with the oil still in it; and there was the half eaten loaf of bread.
Yes — but what is that lying there? It is the body of a woman with her face in her hand, seeking to avoid the cinders that were falling. And you can stand there and look upon her, still lying as she cast herself down centuries back. I walked in and out those empty houses in this city of the dead, and I thought of the text, 'turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, he condemned them with an overthrow'. Sudden was the destruction. There was the bread in the oven which was never taken out by the baker, and the wine was still in the bottle on which the date of the vintage was clearly written. In the house of Diomed which you enter almost first, there, down in the cellar, were discovered seventeen skeletons, all of women, and we saw the marks of their bodies where they huddled on the ground among the wine flasks that were yet down there. In a backroom in a house there was found, lying in a heap of rubbish, a man with outstretched hands and clutched fingers, and there, close by, the excavation workers brought up four hundred pieces of silver, and jewels, and brooches. The miser was caught as he was counting his hoard; the harlot was arrested in her house of shame; the prisoner was suffocated in his cell, and the sentry as he stood at the gateway.
Now, can you not imagine that those men and women of Pompeii thought that the day of judgment had come? A darkness that might be felt swathed the city. The earth rumbled; then the sea became tortured; and giant waves rolled up upon the trembling shore; and over all there were the lurid flashes from the crater of Vesuvius, while masses of blazing rock went hissing through the air, and the shrieks of the terrified people rose until death triumphed and stilled the clamor!
As I stood in lonely Pompeii, looking at Vesuvius, the mountain did not appear quite so innocent. It seemed to me, as I stood there, that I heard Vesuvius speak. And the mountain muttered these words — 'I can do it again! I can do it again!'
O sirs, believe me, there is a day coming compared with which all we have described is devoid of terror. I mean this world's last day. And then will men be caught careless, as they were then.
O sinner, just for one minute, in conclusion, I want you to look at the actions of God in the past, just in the same way as I looked at what Vesuvius had done. I could not believe that there was no fearful power for destruction in the mountain, when I walked those empty streets of Pompeii. If any modern thinker had come to me at the time, and said, 'You know, Mr Brown, it is all a delusion. It is a medieval idea that Vesuvius has any lava in it. It is all a mistake to think that Vesuvius ever can destroy. It is always quiet, as you see it.' I think I should have taken him by the arm and said, 'Look, sir, do you count me a born fool? How about Pompeii? If there be no destructive power in Vesuvius, how about Herculaneum? What mean these heaps of lava on which the villages now stand? What mean these ruins? Vesuvius can do it yet again!'
My brethren and sisters, go back and see what God has done. When God smites Judah it is that Israel should take warning, and he who hurled the angels from Heaven to Hell, and drowned the world, and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, has power still to smite. Oh, do not rouse my God to anger. Will you count his longsuffering to be slackness? and because he still lengthens out the time of grace will you presume on it? 'Escape for your life.'
I have finished, and, as an old preacher once said, 'Now may God begin.' I feel that, though we have tried to preach to you earnestly, our language has been but cold and faint. Young men, I do not suppose I shall ever see you all again. It is impossible. But as surely as you are sitting in those pews there is a day coming in which you will find every word we have uttered to be true. There is a day coming in which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the earth shall melt with fervent heat, and the trumpet of the archangel shall wax louder and louder! And if you die rejecting Christ you will find yourself, in spite of all that modern thinkers say, doomed to eternal perdition. Fly, then, to Christ, I beseech you. Trust him and he will save you this evening. Rest on his atoning sacrifice, and all sin shall be forgiven you. Go now, and presume no more on God's patience. Flee from the wrath to come! May God add his blessing, for Christ's sake. Amen.