[B35] The Apostles' Creed: Eternal Death

Eternal death [is not] the eternal extinction of life, or the cessation of conscious existence. There are those who hold that in the future world the soul of the wicked shall die, just as the body does here, — that the time comes, sooner or later, when the soul ceases to act, to feel, to be; and that it will never be restored. This they consider eternal punishment by way of deprivation. It is the loss of the supreme good. This is not a doctrine of Scripture, it is found alone in the imagination of men.

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35. Eternal Death

Then shall He say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. — St. Matt. 25:41.

As we saw last Sunday, it is the out-spoken affirmation of all Scripture that there is to be a universal resurrection of the dead. As the next step, every thinking mind is confronted with the question, — after the resurrection, what?

Humanity in this life, in a general way, seems to be moving onward toward a common destiny. There are some differences in education, point of view, and deportment; but in the great fundamental experiences of life there is little difference. And all come to the same end. Stripped of all the little fripperies of life each one becomes heir to a little heritage, four by six. But back of this seeming sameness there is a fundamental difference. The supreme and infallible teacher of the ages, Jesus Christ, tells us that the children of men are moving forward in distinct, divergent columns. Jesus tells us there are two paths leading through this world. They are not marked by any visible, tangible boundaries. The travelers on each are not always distinguished by widely contrasted conduct. Sometimes, it is true, conduct proclaims the essential character of the doer, and the path on which he travels. But whether men can discern it or not, the clear-seeing, all-seeing eye of God never fails to distinguish on which path one walks: the broad way where God is never found, where self occupies the center of the stage, and the end — a withered, ruined life, — or the narrow way of restricted human fellowship, but where God is never missing, and the end — blessedness.

Coming events cast their shadows before. The future is being decided by the present. The resurrection is but God’s call to the body to share the eternal destiny of the soul. And the eternal destiny of the soul is decided by our days of probation here and now. The Judgment will be no more than the announcement of the results men have attained in this life.

Now we are ready to answer the question. After the resurrection, what? The Judgment day presents to view the assembly of all humanity, not one being absent. Eternity spreads out before them. But it will not be the same to all. The distinctions which marked men here will continue to mark them there. Indeed, they shall continue to walk on, forever and forever, in the paths they have chosen here.

As a subject suggested by the closing statement of our Creed, but the very opposite of its positive truth, let us consider for our morning meditation — Eternal Death.

1. Eternal Death

First of all, let us consider the import of these fearful words, — eternal death.

You may be questioning in your mind why we have elected to discuss this unpleasant topic when it is not mentioned in our Creed, and not explicitly even in the explanation. As to form we might be excused for omitting the subject. The Creed says only this, “I believe in … the life everlasting.” Luther, in the explanation, modifies this by the statement that eternal life becomes the possession only of the believer in Christ, leaving the condition of the unbeliever to be drawn by inference. This is because the Creed, in its brief, elliptical sentences, is an expression only of the Christian’s subjective faith, that which he believes with respect to himself. As to form, then, we could have omitted this subject. And assuredly it is not an agreeable one to treat. Besides, the weak sentimentalists, the doubters of God’s Word, and those whose own consciences accuse them, would like for us to omit it. Aye, there’s the rub. There is great need for the study of this topic. Many seared consciences need to be reached, and, if possible, aroused. There are many people before whose eyes there is no fear of God, we should at least attempt to reach them. And after all, the subject of eternal life is but one side of a great problem. Both sides belong to a full, impartial view of it. May the Spirit of Him who has revealed all saving truth guide us into the knowledge and belief of it.

Eternal death. These words do not mean the eternal extinction of life, or the cessation of conscious existence. There are those who hold that in the future world the soul of the wicked shall die, just as the body does here, — that the time comes, sooner or later, when the soul ceases to act, to feel, to be; and that it will never be restored. This they consider eternal punishment by way of deprivation. It is the loss of the supreme good. This is not a doctrine of Scripture, it is found alone in the imagination of men.

The condition of the lost in the future world is called death because it lacks everything which makes life blessed, it is in possession of everything which makes life wretched. The center of it all is that they are excluded from fellowship with God. God is life, and only that which basks in the sunlight of His presence deserves to be called life. In addition to this loss, which is, in itself, a living death, there are many positive ills to be borne. There will be the consciousness that the door of hope is eternally closed. We have all had moments when dark despair sat brooding on our brow. There is nothing worse. In that land where there is an eternal dying, and death would be a welcome visitor, but never comes, there the very atmosphere will be impregnated with despair. And forever and forever there will be the living on of a life that is disjointed, disgruntled, inharmonious. Sin will be going on doing its deadly work through the ages. The minds of men will be disillusioned as to its deadly nature, but it will be fastened upon them like an incurable leprosy. And to cap all, eternity must be spent in most intimate fellowship with that powerful, but malignant Spirit by whom, in life, they were blinded, enamored, snared and ruined. Their eyes will now be opened. They will know his true nature. They will loathe him. But they will not be able to escape him. The very essence of hell is to be tied up forever with this personification of all sin.

Instead of eternal death being extinction of being, it is going to be an existence capable of enduring the most intensified ills, ills beyond the power of human speech adequately to portray. The endless pathway of hopelessness stretching out before the lost will grip and gripe their souls like a vise. There will be the revolt, the fruitless revolt, of the whole being against its own state, a state of false, discordant, inharmonious action. Sin, which has wrought all man’s ruin for this life, will continue forever its cancerous, corroding, blighting work; ever eating, but never consuming. The whole being of the eternally lost will be involved in such a condition of superlative wretchedness that it is often represented, even by Christ Himself, by the figure of a raging, inextinguishable fire.

And this condition is to continue eternally. Eternity! The mind of man stands impotent in the presence of this thought. We get but a faint, shadowy conception of what eternity is by contrasting it with time. A couple of hundred years seems a long time. A thousand, two or three thousand years can be but faintly comprehended. But all time, as Plato said so long ago, is but the moving shadow of eternity. Time marks change. In time there is conflict, revolution, progress. Eternity predicates not only endless duration, but fixity of condition. Time is the period of probation. Eternity is the oceanic calm of unbroken rest in God, or the chained fixity of Confirmation in sin.

The ancients, we are told, thus represented eternity. Somewhere, they said, lies a diamond, mountain like in size. Every hundred years a little bird flew to its top to sharpen its bill. When this mountain-like diamond, has, in this way, been worn away, said they, it will represent but a second of eternity.

Eternity! Unfortunately there are so many people of such shallow capacity, with souls so dwarfed and blinded by sin, that even the thought of eternity cannot jar them from their indolent, sleepy indifference. Eternity! Have we decided, by the grace of God, where we are going to spend it? Eternity! As parents, preachers, teachers, has this word taken sufficient hold on us; infused us with enough energy to lead us to warn our children, pupils, companions, hearers of an eternity without God?

2. The Terrible Doctrine’s Source

Whence comes this terrible doctrine of a life of endless darkness and misery for the finally godless and impenitent?

We have no hesitancy in calling this a terrible doctrine. It must needs be a terrible doctrine that deals with terrible facts. It makes one shudder to contemplate it. But there is no sense, because of this, in closing ones eyes to the truth, or denying it. All sin is terrible. The consequences of it in this world are terrible. The suffering, the physical and mental ruin it works here and now are terrible. The obtuseness, the moral blindness, the atrocities to which it leads are terrible. Is not sin leading to many things all around us which make our hearts bleed, draw heavily on our sympathies, and sometimes stir to the extreme our indignation? Does it make these things not to be if we shut our eyes to them, or turn our backs on them? They exist, and people suffer from them, in spite of all possible denials. Just so it is with eternal death. This is but another, and the final step in the progress of sin. Eternal death, in its essence, is but a life in the eternally throttling grasp of sin.

A former great preacher of England, a man of very liberal views on many subjects, declared that “everlasting punishment is written on the whole scroll of life.” Some of us, he says, are suffering from things we did forty years ago. We are all suffering, more or less, all the time, from the ravages of sin. We all know that sin has kept many good things from us. We have been tantalized by glimpses of unattainable good. We are all more or less baffled, and hindered, and mocked by some malevolent spirit which has laid its withering hand upon us. We feel the nemesis of judgment constantly athwart our pathway. Is it not a reasonable deduction that unless this disease is cured, this condition righted, the attendant circumstances will continue?

It is a central and abiding truth of the universe that wrong doing cannot escape judgment. It is written in the book of nature, as well as in Revelation, that “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” God is not mocked. Man may deny this; but denying the theory, they are still left to face the fact. At the heart of all things is the principle of judgment, and there is no escaping its inevitable operation. men may rest assured that their sins will find them out. “Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished.”

Though there are present indications in all nature, and especially in all human life, that there is an inexorable law of judgment, a punishment for all evil doing, we Christians base our faith only on the teaching of God’s holy Word. It is taught by the prophet who declares that the godless shall awake to shame and everlasting contempt. And again, “Their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched.” The Revelator says, “the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever and forever.” And above all, the loving, compassionate Jesus says, to the godless — “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” If there is no eternal death, there is no guarantee of eternal life; for the words expressive of duration are the same in both cases.

Some people not only throw up their hands in horror at the mention of this doctrine, but they try to deny it on the score of God’s character. They say it is altogether contrary to His loving, merciful nature to inflict such a punishment on man. And they sometimes express themselves as if those who hold this doctrine of God’s Word thought that He has a vindictive delight in torturing certain people. Nothing is farther from the truth. God is not to blame because there is such a state as eternal death. And He takes no pleasure in inflicting it. “As I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” Recall also Christ’s lament over godless Jerusalem. God has always, and everywhere shown Himself to be yearning to bless the children of men. He is always watching for opportunities to surprise them with fuller light, and overwhelm them with multiplied acts of kindness. He is always saying, I will dig around this tree, and nurture it carefully, next year it may bear fruit. In all things the goodness of God operates to lead men to repentance. All God’s plans have as their aim man’s recovery, restoration, reinstatement in the household of God. But God has an honor to sustain, and the character of a home to maintain; and when men persist in their evil way of unbelief and godless conduct, ruin themselves here in this world, and then go out into eternal darkness, it is not God’s fault, but their own. God says to such people, depart, you cannot come into heaven; but in the truest sense of the word they have excluded themselves. And if God should take such a person, and set him down hard by the throne of glory, it would not be heaven to him. Such a man carries hell with him. A man has hell in his own heart before he is ever consigned to that dark and terrible place where life is ten thousand-fold worse than death. Says Milton, describing such a life.

“Which way I fly is hell, myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep, a lower deep,
Still threatening to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.”

3. Practical Considerations

Some of the practical results which should follow a careful study of the subject of eternal death are worthy of consideration.

One of the emotions resulting from the contemplation of this truth, on the part of Christians, should be a feeling of most profound gratitude. We have escaped this terrible fate. Once we were in the way which led to eternal death. We have been delivered. Not by any special merit of our own. Indeed, if strict justice had been meted out, this would have been our portion. God’s love and mercy provided the remedy which saves from it, — Jesus Christ. God’s goodness melted our cold hearts, broke down our opposition, and enabled us to receive Christ as our life. If we have come to appreciate, in but some faint measure, what it is from which we have been saved, then in our hearts there will be the continuous refrain. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name.”

Gratitude, however, will be coupled with the most painstaking care. We have been delivered from the grip of spiritual death, but the corruption caused by it in our nature has not yet all been purged out. And every particle of it means danger. It is like a poison lingering in the system, ready to break out whenever the conditions permit. This is the reason God everywhere in His Word, and through our own experience with the evil, keeps warning us of the danger threatening us. Will we be warned? Will we heed the exhortation to watch and pray?

When it is necessary to use, about the premises, some preparation dangerous to life if unwisely used, we label it — poison. We keep it secluded. We warn every one against it. Our country, at the present time, is greatly agitated by the threatened scourge of infantile paralysis. All kinds of precautionary measures are being taken to isolate the cases already developed, and to protect those most susceptible to the disease. The best medical talent of the land is busily engaged in the endeavor to discover the real nature of the disease, and to find a remedy for it. These are all temporary, physical ills. And they are as atoms to infinity in comparison with eternal death, which is the combination of all possible ills in the undying death of one individual. Ought not, then, every sense be callout to guard ourselves against this monster getting a grip on us?

In fighting this monster there can be, however, no shadow of selfishness. The man who has been delivered from this plague of plagues will never say, well, thank the Lord, I am safe, I do not care what becomes of others. He who is truly saved is desirous of saving others. Let us, then, take up the cry, and sound forth the warning. O thoughtless one, if you have not made your peace with God, consider these words, if you have found this peace you will assuredly consider what they mean to others —

Eternity! O what a pang!
Eternity! No serpent’s fang
Could send that thrill of terror;
When I resolve thy clanking chains,
Thy dark abyss of deathless pains,
My soul is filled with horror.
O search the universe around,
No equal terrors can be found.
“Eternity! terrific word!
Within the heart a piercing sword!
Beginning without ending!
Eternity! unmeasured time!
I sink beneath the thought sublime,
That I to thee am tending:
Lord Jesus, when it pleaseth Thee,
Grant me Thy blest eternity!”

Golladay, R. E. (1917). Eternal Death. In Sermons on the Catechism: The Apostles’ Creed (Vol. II, pp. 374—451). Columbus, OH: Lutheran Book Concern.

By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.

Luther’s Small Catechism: Series B – The Apostles’ Creed

Publication Information

  • Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
  • Title: “The Apostles’ Creed”
  • Originally Published: 1917 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2020
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0