“For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
This passage is one of the strongest warning passages in Scripture. It is filled with ominous terms like fearful (twice), judgment, judge, fiery indignation, devouring the adversaries, vengeance, and worse punishment.
Some People (often called Arminians) feel that this passage is threatening Christians with loss of salvation. Others (often called Calvinists) feel that professing, but not genuine, believers are being threatened with hell, proving that they were never saved in the first place. However, neither of these views harmonizes with the context or with the rest of the NT, as will now be shown.
Eternal Condemnation Is Not in View
Genuine Believers Are In View And They Can’t Experience Eternal Condemnation
The Book of Hebrews in general is addressed to genuine believers. See, for example, 3:1, “Therefore, holy brethren partakers of the heavenly calling. . .” See also 6:4-6.
The larger context of chapter 10 also strongly asserts that genuine believers are being addressed. In vv 1-18 the author speaks of the forgiveness of sins. In vv 19-20 he calls the readers “brethren,” people who have “boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus” and who have Jesus Christ as their High Priest.
The immediate context of this passage says that those being addressed have already been sanctified (v 29)! Only believers have been sanctified (cf. 10:10, 14). In addition, they are called “His people” (v 30)–something only true of believers.
Many passages assert that believers are eternally secure. See, for example, John 3:18; 4:14; 5:24; 6:47; 10:28-29; Rom 8:38-39. See also Hebrews 10:14, 17-18. Thus once we establish that genuine believers are in view, we can be sure that hell is not under discussion.
No Words for Hell Mentioned
There is no reference here to “the lake of fire,” “Gehenna,” “hell,” “unquenchable fire,” “eternal torment,” or any terms commonly associated with eternal condemnation. Take a moment and reread the passage and you will see what I mean.
Some might wonder about “fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” (v27) and “worse punishment” (v29). The latter expression is discussed below. The former merely refers to God’s zeal in judging those who oppose Him (which can certainly include believers). We might translate the phrase in question, “the fire of zeal which will devour the adversaries.” Fire is a common biblical metaphor for temporal judgment. Only when the context clearly specifies eternal burning does fire in Scripture refer to hell. There is no such indication here.
Temporal Judgment Is Being Threatened
Genuine Believers in View
As shown above, genuine believers are in view and believers cannot experience eternal condemnation. Thus, whatever the judgment is, it must either refer to the Judgment Seat of Christ, which this passage clearly does not, or to some judgment here and now.
Many Temporal Judgments Are Worse Than Death
Verse 29 speaks of a punishment worse than the death penalty which was given under the Law of Moses (v 28). There are many temporal judgments worse than immediate death. Lingering emotional, spiritual, and physical pain (which may well culminate in premature death) can be much worse than immediate death.
The point of comparison is with temporal, not eternal, judgment. Even believers were subject to the death penalty under the Law of Moses. For example, but for God’s grace, David would have been stoned for committing adultery with Bathsheeba and for having her husband killed (2 Sam 12:13). If the thing used for comparison is temporal in nature, we would expect that the punishment to which it is compared would be as well.
This passage does not deal with moral failure. Rather it deals with doctrinal defection and its terrible temporal consequences. Those who apostatize, who willfully turn their back on Christ and deny the atoning power of His blood, will experience punishment worse than death.
Doctrinal defection is something which terrifies me. I take great care to guard against it. May we all remember the words of the author of the Book of Hebrews concerning apostasy:
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”