Larger Catechism, Question #29: Dr. William Young
The following sermon was preached by Dr. William Young at East Greenwich, RI on March 10, 1991
Q. 29. What are the punishments of sin in the world to come?
A. The punishments of sin in the world to come, are everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell-fire forever.
May it please the Most High to grant his indispensable aid as we endeavor to consider the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, the first chapter and the ninth verse: “Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power…”
We are living in a very sad time. It is a time in which men who have the reputation of being leaders in the Evangelical world deny the reality of hell as eternal punishment. I am not saying it is true of all; but it is true of all too many among Christians that have the very high reputation of being prominent leaders of the cause of Christ. There was a time when scorning with respect to hell was a bond of the ungodly and those who were open enemies of the kingdom of the Son of God. And then came a time when within the church, it was the Modernists, it was those who denied the authority of the Word of God, who denied the fundamental elements of the faith that those who called themselves Fundamentalists have insisted upon, like the deity of Christ and his miracles, his substitutionary atonement, his bodily resurrection from the dead, his personal and visible coming again at the Last Day. But now, those who make profession of holding to these things, those prominent among them, include such as deny that which has been the testimony of the Christian Church throughout the centuries.
Now, the theory that the finally impenitent will be annihilated is contrary to the doctrine our Larger Catechism, which at Question 29 asks: What are the punishments of sin in the world to come? And the answer is given: The punishments of sin in the world to come, are everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most the grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell-fire forever. Now, this is not just the teaching of the Larger Catechism of the Westminster divines and of the great mass of witnesses to the truth throughout the ages. It is the solemn teaching in our text, and I repeat the words, “Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.”
Now the text in the context speaks of the sentence that will be pronounced at the Last Judgment, after the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; but it applies, not only to the eternal state after the last resurrection and the Judgment, but it applies also to the state of the lost after death, and before the time of the Savior’s second coming. That this is the case is evident from the account that we have read of the rich man and Lazarus in the Gospel according to Luke. Our Savior’s teaching there surely applies to the state of the impenitent after death and prior to the last resurrection.
Now we may consider in connection with this subject: first, the subject of the punishment of loss; secondly, the punishment of sense; and thirdly, the eternity of these punishments. The punishment of loss is the first of these. It is the loss of God, the chief good. As the Larger Catechism puts it, it is an everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God. Our text calls it; “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord.” Now that word “destruction” is twisted by the anniilationists to mean “annihilation,” but that is not the way that the word “destruction” is used in Holy Scripture when it speaks of the final destiny of the impenitent and wicked man. Remember how our Lord Jesus Christ taught his disciples in Matthew 10:28, not to fear those who could only kill the body but cannot do any more than that. They are to fear, our Lord Jesus said, him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell. And that destruction of both body and soul in hell is not annihilation. Hell is spoken of by the Savior as the place “where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.” The teacher of annihilation would maintain that the fire of hell will only go on for a time, and will eventually be quenched when the wicked are in annihilated. But our Savior has spoken of the worm that does not die and of the fire that is not quenched.
And it is the Savior, he who is set forth in the Gospel as the Redeemer of sinners, who is that same one who in the Last Day will be the Judge, and will issue that command to those on his left hand, “Depart from me ye cursed into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels,” as we have it in Matthew 25:41. Our Savior likewise has represented himself in the Sermon on the Mount as declaring to those who have hypocritically made a great profession of his name, who have apparently done very spectacular deeds, and who were thought to honor Christ to the extension of his kingdom: “Depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” “I never knew you.” Well, the final sentence thus defined by the Lord is executed as Matthew 25:46 puts it: “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment…” From the loss of God there follows the loss of all good. As Fisher’s Catechism puts it, it is “the loss of men’s own souls.” And our Savior raised that searching question, “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Fisher’s Catechism goes on to speak of all the pleasures of sin and sense wherein they placed their happiness in this world. All this will be gone in hell.
There is not only the punishment of loss; the annihilationist might say: he maintains the punishment of loss with respect for those who depart from this life outside of Christ. But the punishment of sin in the life to come also includes also what is known as the punishment of sense. The ungodly, as well as the godly, have souls that can never die. That is a part of the difference between man and the beast, which was produced by the creative act of God in the beginning, which has not been altered even by the Fall with all its fearful effects. The souls of human beings continue even when the body disintegrates. But the body itself shall be raised in the end, and not only the bodies of the righteous ones. I Corinthians 15 and I Thessalonians 4 express the blessedness of the resurrection of the righteous; but the wicked shall also be raised from the dead. The resurrection bodies of the wicked together with their souls will be cast into that furnace of fire.
Now there is much that we do not know about the future life, and the details we need not pry into. Thomas Boston well observes that those who are curious with respect to the nature of the punishments of hell should rather be concerned to escape from that awful doom. They will find out all too soon in their own experience what hell is like. Let us acknowledge that we are not to speculate about these matters. We do have the language of Scripture, and we have the most awful descriptions with respect to hell in the words of our Lord Jesus Christ himself. He has spoken of the “worm that never dies,” and of the “fire that shall not be quenched.” It seems natural to understand the never dying worm of a guilty conscience which will be an eternal reproach to those who have been banished from the comfortable presence of the Lord.
But the greatest guilt that conscience will testify to is the guilt of rejecting the Lord Jesus Christ when he is offered as a Savior. We have the words of Matthew, the eleventh chapter, at the 21st verse: “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.” We think of that question of Hebrews 2:3: “How shall we escape, if neglect so great salvation?”
Now some people are curious about the fire of hell. Will it be literal fire or is this symbolic language? Well, it is undoubtedly true that the fire of hell will not be earthly fire that is quenched. That certainly is perfectly clear; but it is something more dreadful than anything which we can conceive. Revelation 20:10 speaks of the “lake of fire and brimstone”; and there is an allusion undoubtedly here to the reigning down of fire and brimstone upon the cities of the plain in Genesis 19.
The most fearful feature of hell fire is its eternity. This is what, not only those who like one of ancient church fathers, Symmachus, supposed in the final salvation of all creation, but those who maintain the somewhat less optimistic expectation that the wicked will finally be annihilated. They cannot stand the thought that hell is going be the punishment of sense as well as of loss for all eternity.
Now our Larger Catechism speaks of the pains of hell as being without interruption, and that is a fearful thing. I believe it is the proper inference from the account given in the Gospel of Luke of the rich man in hell, pleading that he might have at least a drop of water to cool his tongue in the fire which was tormenting him. And we have plainer statements in the book of Revelation with regard to the uninterrupted character of the punishment of the ungodly. But fearful as the thought is of the torments are without interruption, even more fearful is the thought that the judgment is eternal, and that there is no end. The thought of eternity is indeed an awful thought, and old divines have sometimes given a kind of picture in speaking of a bird coming and pecking away a grain of dust from the world, one every thousand years. When the whole world shall have been disposed in that fashion, eternity would not have begun. The vastness of endless eternity is in itself a fearful thought, but the thought of everlasting punishment is a most awesome thought. I do not tend to use a word like “awful,” or a word like “terrible,” because those words can be misunderstood. But here is the thought that can fill the soul with awe at the consideration of it; the eternity of the punishment that is awarded justly to the wicked.
If our Lord Jesus did not teach this himself, we would not want to make comment perhaps; but our Savior speaks of the punishment of the lost as being everlasting in the account of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25. The righteous are said to go into eternal life; but those on the left hand into eternal punishment. And it is the same word that is used in the original: the punishment of the wicked is as “eternal”, as God himself is “eternal”, and as heaven is “eternal”. To deny the eternity of hell, by implication calls into question the eternity of heaven. And why do people deny it? What is the ground or underground of the denial of this? People in this might seem to be very compassionate and might seem to think of things on the brighter side. What is underlying all this? It is a failure to realize the seriousness of sin. It is a failure to realize the inflexible character of the justice of God.
Now God is just. There will be different degrees of punishment in hell. Our Savior himself has given the analogy of one who would be beaten with a few stripes, because he was a servant that was ignorant of what his master’s will was; but on the other hand, the servant that knows his master’s will, but who nonetheless acts contrary to that which he knows, would be beaten with many stripes. And there is a principle there that not only does knowledge enter into the picture, but there are many other factors by which sins may be aggravated in the eyes of God. And so God calls, therefore, for a heavier distribution of the penalty. But all sin, never forget this, all sin is sin against God! God is an infinite God. God is not like ourselves as a creature. It is because of the greatness and the majesty of God that sin is infinitely serious, and that it deserves a penalty that a finite creature can only undergo in the way of suffering without an end.
Deny this, and you deny the necessity for the death and the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ, as the God man, has endured the wrath of God both in the punishment of loss and in the punishment of sense. He cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” He was suffering the punishment of loss, and he was suffering not only the physical pains of crucifixion and the mental anguish that would go along with it, but he was suffering the punishment of sense that we deserved to suffer.
Now we may draw from this a number of lessons – two might be sufficient to make mention of. First, though sin be sweet in the mouth, it will be bitter in the belly. It may seem to be a highly attractive thing to act in a way that is contrary to the moral law of God, but in the end it will bring forth bitter fruit. The fruits, even in time, as we have observed on a preceding occasion, are fearful fruits. It is a fearful thing, especially when God leaves one to the lusts of one’s own heart and refrains from restraining the evil that is in one’s wicked heart and allows one to do that which one desires to do that is contrary to God’s own revealed will. It is a fearful thing when God gives a man up unto sin as a punishment for sin in this life! But little indeed is the fearful punishment of sin in this life in comparison with the punishment of sin in the life that is to come! There in hell, the vials of God’s wrath will be poured out in a way in which we have only a faint likeness in this present world.
And the second all important lesson to be drawn from this is the indispensable necessity for you to flee from the wrath to come! The only way of fleeing from the wrath to come is to put one’s faith and confidence upon the Lord Jesus Christ; upon him who has borne the wrath and the curse of God in the room and in the stead of the guilty and to look up to him and live. He, in time, as long as you remain in this mortal life, he appears in the preaching of the gospel as a gracious Savior, saying, “ Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Now then is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation. May he be pleased to grant his blessing, and may we call upon his name in prayer.
Almighty, Eternal, Ever-blessed One, grant that we might recognize that thou art the supreme ruler, and that thou art the source of all good. May we realize how fearful a thing it is to be forsaken of thee. Forbid it then, Lord, that we would forsake thee; but may we look unto to thee not only as our Creator, but as a gracious Redeemer. May we flee from the wrath to come and find refuge in the shadow of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Remember, Lord, the children of thy children. Grant, we beseech thee, that they would seek thee in a day in which thou mayest be found; that they may indeed be found in thee; and they might know thee as their God, as their King, and they be found walking in conformity with all thine ordinances and bring forth fruit unto the Redeemer’s glory.
Do thou, Lord, remember those who rule over us. May we would have rulers that rule in thy fear, that would acknowledge thee to be the Sovereign. Oh! That thy will would be obeyed in all things, not only in their private lives, but also in their public performances. Grant, O Lord, unto our nation, repentance. We would thank thee, O Lord, for thy mercies, and we would acknowledge thy great goodness in the deliverance from the curse of war. But do thou, O Lord, grant that we might recognize not only there is cause for national thanksgiving, but may we also recognize that there is cause for national repentance; that we would humble ourselves as a people for all that in which we violate thy holy laws, and especially we would remember the desecration of thy holy Sabbath day. Look, O Lord, upon us in mercy. Blot out sin and iniquity in holy things. Receive us graciously in Christ, for we would ask all in his name alone, Amen!
This edition of the text combines the transcription of a recorded audio together with Dr. Young’s hand written sermon notes. Some editing was done for ease of publishing. Use of underlining and italics are the editor’s.~~~