The elementary doctrine of hell? That is not a description that I’ve personally assigned to it as though it were my own opinion; it is, however, the way in which the inspired writer of the epistle to the Hebrews categorized it. So as to create a little bit of context, in the fifth chapter the inspired writer told those to whom he was writing,
“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food (Heb. 5:12).”
Putting aside other things that could be said about this verse, let us simply ask the question: “What are the ‘first principles’ that the writer has in mind?” He tells us in the opening verses of chapter six:
“1 Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.” (vs.1-2 emphasis added)
The doctrine of eternal judgment was, and is, one of the elementary principles of Christian doctrine.
The Greek words used here, translated as “eternal judgment,” are aiōniou krimatos. Aiōniou is a conjugated form of the word aionios which means “perpetual” or “eternal” or “everlasting.” While this same word is used in numerous other places of the New Testament to describe the everlasting life that believers have to look forward to in Christ, in Matthew 25:46 we see application to both the everlasting life of the righteous, as well as the everlasting punishment of the wicked in a single verse: “And these will go away into everlasting [aiōnion] punishment, but the righteous into eternal [aiōnion] life.”
Then there’s the word krimatos which can be translated as “judgment, verdict, or lawsuit.” So plainly, in Hebrews 6:1-2, we see that aiōniou krimatos, the doctrine of perpetual, or everlasting, judgment, i.e. ‘an unending condemnatory sentence,’ is an elementary doctrine of the Christian life.
Additionally, notice that the reference to “eternal judgment” (Heb. 6:2d) comes after the reference to the “resurrection of the dead” (vs.2c). I draw your attention to that because the two are connected. While the punishment of the unrepentant begins after an unrepentant person dies (I say that predominantly in light of the language Jesus uses in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus – the rich man, after death, was in a place of torment, while his brothers were still alive on the earth), there is nonetheless a coming moment where a final sentence, as it were, is declared at what is referred to as the “Great White Throne Judgment” after the unregenerate have been resurrected.
In Revelation 20, after John describes the crushing of the final Satanic rebellion that follows Jesus’ millennial reign (Rev. 20:7-9), after which the devil is cast into the lake of fire and brimstone (vs.10a) where the beast and the false prophet already were (vs.10b), and where they will be tormented day and night forever and ever (vs.10c), i.e. aiōnas tōn aiōnōn – for the ages of ages, he proceeded to write,
11 Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. 14 Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. 15 And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:11-15)
So John referenced a final resurrection, similar to the writer of Hebrews, and then he elaborated upon the reality of everlasting punishment by saying that anyone not found in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire (vs.15).
Although the doctrine of eternal punishment is difficult to digest – after all, no human being should gleefully consider the prospect of another human being coming under the unquenchable wrath of God’s righteousness anger, it must not be hid away as though Christians are embarrassed by it. The fact that it was an elementary doctrine means that new Christians were being indoctrinated into this truth upon conversion. And when we are today, even as they were in the early church, the reality of it confronts our fallen proclivity to elevate our own righteousness and diminish God’s holiness. But if we see this doctrine rightly, so that we see our sin as exceedingly sinful and God’s righteousness as inexpressibly lofty, we are more likely to treasure the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ – the only means whereby our eternal punishment could be absorbed and quenched so that we who repent and believe the Gospel could experience eternal life.