The Olivet Discourse is the name given to the orderly and extended teaching given by Jesus the Christ on the Mount of Olives. His subject is the end times. This discourse is recorded in Matthew 24:1 – 25:46. Parallel passages are found in Mark 13:1-37 and Luke 21:5-36. The record in Matthew is the most extensive.
It is important to recognize that Jesus’ teaching in this discourse is in reference to Israel and not the Church. Christ was speaking of God’s future program for Israel. Other passages to consider when studying the Olivet Discourse are Daniel 9:24-27 and Revelation 6:1–19:21, which refer to the future seven-year period called the tribulation. God’s program for the Church concludes with the rapture, which is not taught in the Olivet Discourse. The rapture of the Church is found in John 14:1-4; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52; and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
Universalism is the belief that everyone will be saved. There are many people today who hold to universal salvation and believe that all people eventually end up in heaven. Perhaps it is the thought of men and women living a life of eternal torment in hell that causes some to reject the teaching of Scripture on this issue. For some it is an over-emphasis on the love and compassion of God—and the neglect of the righteousness and justice of God—that leads them to believe God will have mercy on every living soul. But the Scriptures do teach that some people will spend eternity in hell.
The Bible is clear that unredeemed people will dwell forever in hell. Jesus’ own words confirm that the time spent in heaven for the redeemed will last as long as that of the unredeemed in hell. “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” Matthew 25:46
According to this verse, the punishment of the unsaved is just as eternal as the life of the righteous. Some believe that those in hell will eventually cease to exist, but the Lord Himself confirms that it will last forever. Matthew 25:41 and Mark 9:44 describe hell as “eternal fire” and “unquenchable fire.”
Universalism directly contradicts what Scripture teaches. While many people accuse Christians of being intolerant and “exclusive,” it is important to remember that these are the words of Christ Himself. Christians did not develop these ideas on their own; Christians are simply stating what the Lord has already said. People choose to reject the message because they do not want to face up to their sin. To say that those who reject God’s provision of salvation through His Son will be saved is to belittle the holiness and justice of God and negate the need of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf.
Annihilationism is the belief that unbelievers will not experience an eternity of suffering in hell, but will instead be “extinguished” after death. For many, annihilationism is an attractive belief because of the awfulness of the idea of people spending eternity in hell. While there are some passages that seem to argue for annihilationism, a comprehensive look at what the Bible says about the destiny of the wicked reveals the fact that punishment in hell is eternal. A belief in annihilationism results from a misunderstanding of one or more of the following doctrines: 1) the consequences of sin, 2) the justice of God, 3) the nature of hell.
In relation to the nature of hell, annihilationists misunderstand the meaning of the lake of fire. If a human being were cast into a lake of burning lava, he/she would be almost instantly consumed. However, the lake of fire is both a physical and spiritual realm. It is not simply a human body being cast into the lake of fire; it is a human’s body, soul, and spirit. A spiritual nature cannot be consumed by physical fire. The unsaved are resurrected with a body prepared for eternity just as the saved are (Revelation 20:13; Acts 24:15). These bodies are prepared for an eternal fate.
Eternity is another aspect that eludes annihilationists. Annihilationists are correct that the Greek word aionion, which is usually translated “eternal,” does not by definition mean “eternal.” It specifically refers to an “age” or “eon,” a specific period of time. In the New Testament, aionion is sometimes used to refer to an eternal length of time. Revelation 20:10 speaks of Satan, the beast, and the false prophet being cast into the lake of fire and being tormented “day and night forever and ever.” These three are not “extinguished” by being cast into the lake of fire.
Why would the fate of the unsaved be any different (Revelation 20:14-15)? The most convincing evidence for the eternality of hell is Matthew 25:46, “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” In this verse, the same Greek word is used to refer to the destiny of the wicked and the righteous. If the wicked are only tormented for an “age,” then the righteous will only experience life in heaven for an “age.” If believers will be in heaven forever, unbelievers will be in hell forever.
Another frequent objection to the eternality of hell by annihilationists is that it would be unjust for God to punish unbelievers in hell for eternity for a finite amount of sin. How could it be fair for God to take a person who lived a sinful, 70-year life, and punish him/her for all of eternity? The answer is that our sin bears an eternal consequence because it is committed against an eternal God. When King David committed the sins of adultery and murder he stated, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4). David had sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah; how could David claim to have only sinned against God? David understood that all sin is ultimately against God. God is an eternal and infinite Being. As a result, all sin against Him is worthy of an eternal punishment. It is not a matter of the length of time we sin, but the character of the God against whom we sin.