Punishment and Torment

Ellet J. Waggoner

The Signs of the Times : April 8, 1886 

A reader of the SIGNS sends the following:—
“Your number of March 11, in ‘Notes on the International Lessons,’ says the doctrine of the eternal torment is contrary to the word of God. Will you please explain Matthew 25:41, Christ’s own words? I have had faith in your papers; its teachings compared in many respects to my belief. But without satisfactory explanations in this doctrine, my faith will have some doubts on other subjects.”
Matthew 25.46 reads thus: “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” We believe that this verse will be literally fulfilled. We know that the words “everlasting” and “eternal”, in this verse,are from the same word in the Greek, and have the same meaning in the English; and therefore the text teaches that the punishment of the wicked will last just as long as the reward of the righteous. Our friend must certainly agree with us thus far.
Now what will be the punishment of the wicked? “The wages of sin is death.” Romans 6:23. Then since the punishment of the wicked is everlasting, it must be everlasting death—a death from which there is no awaking. Paul also in another place says that “these shall be punished with everlasting destruction.” 2 Thessalonians 1:9
Our friend has confused the words “punishment” and “torment.” They are not synonymous terms. Whatever torment the wicked may suffer, they cannot be said to have been punished until they have suffered death; for the wages of sin is death. The “tribulation and anguish” which will be rendered to them may be a very long continuance; but their punishment consists in death, and this punishment—will be everlasting. To all eternity the wicked will “be as though they had never been.” Obadiah 1:16
Matthew 25:41 reads as follows: “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” This does not in the least contradict the explanation just given. Everlasting or eternal fire does not necessarily imply that its victims must exist eternally. How was it with Sodom and Gomorrah? The Lord rained fire and brimstone upon them, and they were consumed from off the face of the earth. Nothing marks where they once stood, and is supposed that the waters of the Dead Sea roll over it. They have no existence, yet the apostle says: “as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” Jude 7. If “eternal fire” resulted in the complete destruction of the cities of the plain, it must have a like edict on those who are finally impenitent. Indeed, the connection shows that the destruction of those cities was an example of the final fate of the wicked. On this passage Dr. Barnes says: —
“The phrase ‘eternal fire,’ is one that is often used to denote future punishment—as expressing the severity and intensity of the suffering. As here used, it cannot mean that the fires that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah were literally eternal, or were kept always burning, for that was not true. The expression seems to denote, in this connection, two things: (1) That the destruction of the cities of the plain, with their inhabitants, was as entire and perpetual as if the fires had been always burning—the consumption was absolute and enduring—the sinners were wholly cut off, and the cities were for ever rendered desolate; and (2)that in its nature and duration this was a striking emblem of the destruction which will come upon the ungodly.”
Our correspondent says that he has had faith in the SIGNS, because its teachings corresponded to his belief. While we are pleased to have people favor the SIGNS, we do not like to have the favor rest on that foundation. If a man accepts only what he already believes, he will make no advancement, and may only be confirmed in error; but if he accepts whatever is demonstrated to be truth, whether it accords with his previous belief not, he will always be in the right. This is in accordance with the apostolic injunction: “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” 1 Thessalonians 5:21