Nature of Judgment
There are two basic views of the nature of the judgment mentioned in Hebrews 6:6–8. Some suggest that the judgment is that of eternal damnation.1 McKnight collates all the information concerning judgment from the entire books of Hebrews and concludes the following: “In light of the final sense of several of these expressions (cf. especially the harsh realities of 10:30–31, 39) and the use of imagery in Hebrews that elsewhere is used predominantly of eternal damnation, it becomes quite clear that the author has in mind an eternal sense of destruction.”2 The second possible interpretation of the judgment in Hebrews 6:6–8 is that it entails loss of God’s blessing and the onset of cursing (up to and including physical death).3 Gleason summarizes, “In light of the Old Testament blessing-curse motif, the judgment in view in Hebrews 6:7–8 is best understood as the forfeiture of blessing and the experience of temporal discipline rather than eternal destruction.”4
There are four basic arguments given in favor of eternal damnation as the judgment in 6:6–8. First, the terms used for the judgment, especially in 10:26–31,5 taken together give a clear indication that eternal damnation is in view. McKnight concludes,
Nonetheless, when the exegete ties together “no escape” (2:2; 12:25), God’s anger (3:10, 17), falling short of the rest (3:11, 18–19; 4:1, 6, 11), a condition where no sacrifice remains for someone (10:26), a fearful expectation of judgment (10:27), fire (10:27; 12:29), death without mercy (10:28), and God’s judgment (10:30–31), one is forced to conclude that the author is presenting eternal damnation as a potential consequence for those to whom he gives his warnings about sin and his exhortations to persevere.6
McKnight’s interpretation may be possible. However, he fails to include a significant phrase when he lists the judgment of God in 10:30–31. The phrase that is omitted is the phrase “his people” (10:30). The “clearest” passage in defining this judgment calls the judgment a judgment of God’s people. So, contrary to what McKnight argues, the clearest passage in Hebrews says that the judgment is for true believers. Therefore, it cannot be eternal damnation.7
Second, the fact that the person is not able to be brought back to repentance (ἀδύνατον γὰρ … πάλιν ἀνακαινίζειν εἰς μετάνοιαν) indicates that the issue is a rejection of the gospel, not a believer’s rejection of fellowship.8 Compton concludes, “the author of Hebrews is saying that it is impossible to restore those who heard and understood the gospel but who reject it. This irreversible act has as its only prospect the judgment of God.”9 McKnight claims, “One is pressed to agree that the author is not dealing here with the impossibility of reclaiming a recalcitrant sinner (who will nevertheless be saved in the end) but with eternal damnation because that person has apostatized from a former commitment to God’s salvation in Christ.”10
McKnight mistakenly concludes that if the text is not referring to bringing a sinner back into fellowship with God, it must be referring to eternal judgment. A third possibility exists. Since the blessing/cursing motif is in the immediate context (6:7–8), it is likely that the author of Hebrews is simply saying that it is impossible to avoid losing God’s blessing and experiencing God’s curse of temporal discipline (even if they repent and restore fellowship with God).
This is exactly the same thing that happens to the Israelites at Kadesh (Num 14). They refused to trust God to conquer the Promised Land. God removed his blessing and cursed the Israelites. The next day they repented of their lack of trust. God forgave them, but it was impossible to escape God’s curse. All those over twenty died in the wilderness instead of entering the Promised Land (even though God forgave them).11 Hebrews 6:6, literally, is saying that it is impossible to renew someone to a former state by means of repentance.12
The person who fails to trust Christ’s high priestly ministry for daily living cannot escape God’s chastisement by repenting (even though God forgives him of his lack of trust). This interpretation provides a strong motive for the believer to move on to maturity in his Christian life—if he does not, he will have no way of escaping God’s chastisement.
A third argument used to support eternal damnation as the judgment in Hebrews is the combination of the curse with fire in 6:8. McKnight says, “The image of being cursed by God, with its close association with fire, can only adequately be explained as an allusion to Gehenna or hell, an allusion to God’s punishment and retributive justice.”13
When the people of God in the Old Testament experienced the curses that were part of the Mosaic covenant, they were not removed from God’s people. The purpose of the curse was to bring Israel back into fellowship with God. If this concept of a curse is applied to Hebrews 6:8, it argues in favor of God’s New Testament people being disciplined in order to bring them back into fellowship with God. It certainly does not argue for an eternal damnation of those removed from God’s New Testament people.
McKnight counters, “If willful disobedience and apostasy in the Mosaic era brought discipline and prohibited entrance into the Land (a type of the eternal rest), then surely willful disobedience and apostasy in the new era will bring eternal exclusion from the eternal rest.”14 In other words, the judgment in the New Testament is greater in kind than the judgment in the Old Testament.
Gleason agrees that there is a heightening of some kind in the judgment of the New Testament. However, he reasons that it is greater in degree, not in kind. He says,
It seems better to explain the increasing intensity of coming judgment in terms of degree in light of the severe devastation and physical suffering foreseen by the author as coming on the inhabitants of Judea and Jerusalem. Most of those in the Exodus generation died a natural death in the wilderness, their punishment being their forfeiture of blessings in the Promised Land.15
Therefore, just because there is a heightening of the judgment does not necessarily mean that the blessing/cursing motif is drastically altered. If the curse in Hebrews removes one from God’s people (as McKnight suggests), then it is drastically different than the Old Testament curse.
A fourth argument used to support eternal damnation as the judgment in Hebrews is the word “rejected” in 6:8 (ἀδόκιμος). Since the word “rejected” is used for the unsaved and its antonym “approved” is used for the saved, “rejected” in 6:8 must refer to the unsaved.16 It is undeniable that the word “rejected” refers most often to unbelievers in Scripture; however, it is also used at least once of a believer. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:27, says that he must strive to live a self-controlled Christian life so that he does not become a “castaway” (ἀδόκιμος—“rejected”). Compton rejects the idea that this word means “disapproved” by saying, “It is questionable whether it has this sense in 1 Corinthians 9:27 or elsewhere in the NT.”17 What is undeniable, however, is that Paul understands this term (“rejected”) as a very real possibility for him if he does not live a disciplined life. A disciplined, growing life is also the theme of Hebrews 6. Therefore, it seems likely that “rejected” in this passage could also be a real possibility for a believer.
In conclusion, the judgment in Hebrews 6 is not eternal damnation. It is the loss of God’s blessing and the onset of God’s curse. God’s curse is temporal discipline of the believer, which may even include physical death.
Hebrews 6:4–8 will always be a difficult paragraph to interpret. A proper interpretation must explain the three key elements in this passage of Scripture. This article has attempted to provide the best possible explanations for these key issues.
First, those described in 6:4–5 are truly regenerate people. The natural reading of the descriptions of these people argues for this interpretation. 5:1–6:20 is an extended exhortation to believers to mature in their faith. This fact lends support to the notion that true believers are described in 6:4–5. If 6:4–8 is referring to unbelievers, it makes little sense as an exhortation for believers to mature.
Second, the “falling away” mentioned in 6:6 is not a total rejection of the gospel of Christ. The term itself is not a technical term for apostasy. This “falling away” is presented as a real possibility for true believers. It is parallel to Israel’s failure to trust God at Kadesh when they were considering conquering the Promised Land. The combination of all this evidence argues for the notion that “falling away” in 6:6 is a decisive refusal by a Christian to trust God for daily living (i.e., not living by faith).
Third, the judgment for the one who “falls away” is not eternal damnation, but rather the loss of God’s temporal blessing upon the believer and the onset of cursing (which may include physical death). The direct connection of the judgment in 6:4–8 with the blessing/cursing motif in the Old Testament argues that the judgment in 6:4–8 is not an eternal damnation. Just as curses in the OT did not remove one from God’s people, cursing upon a true believer does not remove him from God’s fold. Also, 10:30 states that the judgment in the Book of Hebrews is on “God’s people.”
This author suggests the following paraphrase for Hebrews 6:4–8:
For it is impossible for true believers who have been once enlightened, and have accepted the heavenly gift, and have been indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and have experienced the good word of the gospel and the power of the coming kingdom; and then they fail to live their daily life by faith in Christ, to return by means of repentance to a place where they can escape God’s curse (temporal chastisement and eternal loss of reward), because they have openly claimed that Christ’s sacrifice was insufficient to maintain fellowship with God and they have publicly embarrassed and dishonored Christ, their patron. Let me illustrate the impossibility of escaping God’s curse by means of an allusion to the OT blessing/cursing motif. The earth which drinks in the rain (accepts the gospel) and produces good fruit (lives by faith) for the one who tends the crops receives blessing from God. However, the land that drinks the rain (accepts the gospel) and does not produce good fruit (does not live by faith) receives the curse of God.
1 McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews,” 33–36; Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 161–164.
2 McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews,” 36.
3 Gleason, “The Old Testament Background,” 86–90; Oberholtzer, “The Thorn-Infested Ground,” 323–326.
4 Gleason, “The Old Testament,” 86–87.
5 McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews,” 34. McKnight says, “The language of 10:26–31 is particularly clear and needs to be the decisive evidence if other images and expressions remain ambiguous.”
7 This conclusion is based on the presupposition that no true believer can lose his salvation.
8 There is a good deal of discussion regarding the extent of this impossibility to repent. Both Gleason (“The Old Testament Background,” 84) and Oberholtzer (“The Thorn-Infested Ground,” 323) argue that it is impossible for man but not for God, since God can do anything. Compton, on the other hand, argues that it is impossible for both God and man since the person has hardened his heart so severely (“Persevering and Falling Away,” 159–160). While this is an interesting discussion, it does not greatly affect the understanding of the judgment in Hebrews. If it is impossible for God, it is only because He has limited Himself in some way. God has chosen to respond to the sin of the unrepentant believer as well as the unbeliever. In a sense, it is impossible for God to ignore the sin of either party.
9 Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 161. The problem with this conclusion is that many hear and understand and reject the gospel (some several times) and then later place their faith in Christ for salvation. What implications does this view have for one’s evangelistic efforts?
10 McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews,” 34.
11 Another interesting example is Esau not being allowed to “repent” his decision to sell his birthright (Hebrews 12:16–17).
12 Εiς is probably used to identify means just as it is in Acts 7:53 (the law was delivered by means of the direction of angels; see Richard A. Young, Intermediate New Testament Greek Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1994], 94). Thus, the person cannot be delivered to a former state (i.e., “wipe the slate clean”) by means of repentance. In other words, a believer cannot escape the consequences of his sinful action by simply repenting.
13 McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews,” 35. See also, Grudem, “Perseverance of the Saints,” 154–156. Compton concludes, “The description of this judgment in 10:27 as a raging fire that will consume the enemies of God hardly sounds like God’s judging the saved” (“Persevering and Falling Away,” 163). Compton fails to note that 10:30 says that this is a judgment of “His people.” Therefore, even if it does not sound like a judgment of “the saved,” it is the best interpretation. Also, there is fire connected to the judgment of believers in 1 Cor 3:13. Both Hebrews 6 and 1 Cor 3 are in the context of the believers building their Christian lives on the correct foundation.
14 McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews,” 35–36.
15 Gleason, “The Old Testament Background,” 90.
16 Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 162.
Dr. Andrew Hudson is Professor of New Testament at Maranatha Baptist Seminary. He attended Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan and Fort Wayne Bible College, Ft. Wayne, Indiana and holds the BA from Pillsbury Baptist Bible College and MDiv, ThM and PhD from Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Minneapolis, Minnesota.