Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment

By Robert A. Peterson
Phillipsburg, NJ : Presbyterian and Reformed (1995). 258 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
7.1 (Spring 1996) : 136-139

This book provides the most careful, recent, overall theological argument for eternal punishment of the unsaved that the reviewer has seen. Peterson is Professor of Systematic Theology, Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis. His book has forewords by John MacArthur, Jr., and David F. Wells. It is a lucid, cautiously argued thesis for the orthodox view of conscious, endless punishment. The author is courteous to those with whom he disagrees, but pleads firmly for the view he is convinced the Bible teaches.

Peterson has twelve chapters. His introduction sets the issues in competing views: life after death is improbable, universalism, a postmortem chance to receive the gospel, annihilationism, and unbelievers suffering eternity in an endless, conscious way in hell. Then he devotes Chapters 2-5 to Bible teaching on the subject (OT, Jesus, apostles), 6-7 to views of key figures in church history, 8-9 to a critique of opposing views, 10 to a topical summary of Bible teaching, 11 to the relationship of eternal punishment with other tenets of the faith (e.g., God, sin, Christ's saving work, heaven). Chapter 12 deals with three difficult questions: What about purgatory? What about the fate of those who never heard the gospel? and What happens to babies who die?

He argues that two texts give a clearer OT picture of the final destiny of the wicked, Isa 66:22-24 and Dan 12:1-2. Isaiah speaks of the ungodly when they are dead corpses suffering for ever, using an image of maggots that do not die and a picture of fire that does not go out. Daniel speaks of God's raising the godly to never-ending life, but the ungodly to never-ceasing disgrace.

The author deals in detail with words of Jesus, who said more about the fate of the wicked than anyone else in Scripture (54). He takes up various passages from Matt 5:21-22 to 25:46. Among his points are these: God rules the final destiny of the unsaved (10:28) which is for those who rejected God (7:23; 8:11-12) and involves pain (13:30, 40-43) pictured by such things as a fiery furnace. In 18:6-9, hell is a fate worse than drowning in the sea with a heavy millstone weighted to one's neck.

In 2 Thess 1:9, Peterson reasons that "eternal destruction" means never-ceasing destruction, not annihilation. The next words, in v. 9, suggest this: ". . . and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power." Separation from the Lord, he argues, presupposes that people still exist (81).

In Rev 14:9-11, Peterson reasons that smoke rises perpetually because the fire has not used up its fuel; the picture would have smoke cease if the fire went out (88). "No rest day or night" (v. 11) means "no relief at any time," not "no relief so long as their suffering lasts," as though pain were only temporary. The lake of fire lasts "day and night forever and ever" (Rev 20:10). Peterson discusses Rev 22:15 also. The ungodly enjoy eternal life in the New Jerusalem, whereas "outside are the dogs," the unsaved, continuing to exist but cut off from God's gracious presence (198).

Chapter 6 seeks to show that eternal punishment was the church's predominant conviction from early days through the Reformation, as in Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin. Origen was one who defected, choosing universalism. In the 18th to 20th centuries most scholars held to eternal punishment (e.g., Jonathan Edwards and W. G. T. Shedd), but some held annihilationism (e.g., William Whiston; Friedrich Schleiermacher).

Chapter 8 offers detail on universalism, particularly responding to John Hick's idea, "justice demands that God win all to Himself" (140). Peterson also argues against the postmortem evangelism and conversion of Clark Pinnock, who believes that all without a desire to repent face annihilation (151). This takes Peterson to such texts as 1 Pet 3:19-20, where a further offer of the gospel would clash with 4:17-18, which teaches that those who do not obey the gospel will face an awful destiny. Another passage is Heb 9:27, death and after it judgment, which is not, as Pinnock sees it, an opportunity to receive grace (151).

Annihilationism is the topic in Chapter 9. Peterson answers what he rates as the best four books for the theory: H. E. Guillebaud, The Righteous Judge (1941); Basil Atkinson, Life and Immortality (1960's); LeRoy Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, 2 vols. (1965-66); and Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of Final Punishment (1982). Peterson feels that John R. W. Stott pulls together the logic for annihilationism well (Stott with David Edwards, Evangelical Essentials, 1988, pp. 312-20). Peterson responds to the five main arguments: vocabulary of destruction, hell-fire imagery, God's justice, universalist texts, and conditional immortality.

"The Case for Eternal Punishment" comes in Chapter 10. Crying and grinding teeth show pain related to fire (Matt 13:42, 50). Hell is also a place of darkness and separation (8:12; 22:13; Luke 13:28); being cut in pieces, i.e., in extreme pain (Matt 24:51; cf. Deut 32:41; Heb 11:37); and death/destruction while conscious (Matt 10:28; Rom 2:12). Revelation 20:7, 10 mention torment day and night forever and ever after the thousand years, apparently eternal in contrast to a long period of time; the "beast" and "false prophet" are in the fire already a thousand years before the devil also is cast in. Contending for hell being eternal, Peterson argues the more natural view in the parallelism of Matt 25:46: the wicked go to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. The punishment side of the contrast is eternal—i.e., endless just as the bliss side is (196). Teaching on hell should stir in people a desire to escape such a fate, leading to a greater boldness in evangelistic zeal (201).

Copious notes appear at the end of each chapter, in addition to indexes to Scripture, names, and topics at the volume's end. The book updates discussion on the subject, gathers many arguments on different passages, and is the best work on the orthodox view related to the recent debate. Every serious student of Scripture ought to read it and think soberly about its relevant aspects.