If you have read this blog for many years, then you’ll know that I take Genesis 2:17 literally. God said “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” In the translation from the Hebrew, God meant quite literally “you will be summarily executed by royal decree” (môt tāmût).
This sentence of death, announced clearly by God in advance of any crime, is not eternal conscious torment in hell. It is the death penalty. So what happens to hell? Hell is real and a terrible place of wailing and gnashing of teeth which comes before judgement. A place of remand for prisoners awaiting judgement, sentencing and execution.
This view of what happens to the wicked is not widely found in theological writings, which gives me great cause for concern. But the more I read the scriptures under this hermeneutic and wrestle with this matter, the more convinced I am that it holds true.
I am also pleased on that rare occasion when I stumble across places where learned scholars agree with me, at least in part. This morning, as I read the Beauties of Ebenezer Erskine, I found one such rare example of someone I respect wrestling with the same matter. He writes:
What sort of life springs out of the Tree of Life?
There is a life of justification, in opposition to legal death. Every man by nature he is dead in the eye of the law? Just like a malefactor under sentence of death; a dead man, because he is dead in the eye of the law, the judge having passed sentence against him, and the day of his execution approaching. This is it which every sinner who is out of Christ is under; he is under the law as a covenant, and therefore a dead man in law; the law hath already condemned him, for the law says to every sinner, “The soul that sinneth shall die.”
Now, so soon as ever, the poor sinner comes under the shadow of the Tree of Life, or by faith tastes the fruit of this tree, the sentence of the law is repealed, and cancelled by virtue of the imputation of the everlasting righteousness of the Son of God as our Surety; so that the man begins to live even before God as the righteous Judge and Lawgiver, he being vested with that righteousness, whereby the law is magnified and made honourable. God allows the poor soul to count and reckon upon this, Romans 6:11, “As Christ died and rose again; so likewise recon ye yourselfs to be dead indeed unto sin; but alive unto God, that he dare say with the apostle, “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect?” It is God that justifies: who is he that condemns?
When Erskine refers to death it cannot be in the normal sense we understand death, which is human mortality, because the sentence of death is repealed for the man who receives Christ. If this fact were true then no Christian believer would die. If The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord, then death in this case cannot be simple mortality as all believers and unbelievers die. Instead, Erskine defines death as something legal which is to be juxtaposed with justification. And so, Erskine is made to develop the concept of the death sentence and approaching execution, which is a legal death rather than human mortality.
This then leads naturally to the cross. The death of Christ, by summary execution, is a direct substitution for the one under the law, the legal sentence of death; the death penalty. Christ’s execution is in place of the guilty sinner, a direct swap. And, as Christ’s worth as eternal Son of God, he justifies the many, who are now alive in Christ. Mortal death is not legal death. Legal death is yet to come (Romans 1:32 “those who do such things deserve to die” and Rev 20:14 “The lake of fire is the second death.”) and hell is the place of remand.