“They who were making such a use of their property have been consoled for light losses by great gains, and have had more pleasure in those possessions which they have securely laid past, by freely giving them away, than grief in those which they entirely lost by an anxious and selfish hoarding of them. For nothing could perish on earth save what they would be ashamed to carry away from earth.” —Augustine, The City of God
“For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved.” —2 Peter 2:17 (ESV)
Dante’s Inferno sets forth nine circles of hell, with the innermost being the most hellish. Working our way in those circles are Limbo (where virtuous pagans reside), Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, and Treachery. Though The Divine Comedy is imaginative it is fitting that we find Socrates in Limbo and Judas near the center just shy of Satan.
While Dante’s work is fanciful, here we learn who the “gloom of utter darkness” is reserved for—false teachers. Not false teachers as in pagan philosophers, like Plato, nor those false teachers of false religions who never learned of Christ such as Gautama Buddha. They are in hell, but not the hell of hell. Peter is speaking of false teachers who have risen within the church. Inside the church, one finds the door to the darkest pit of hell. There is no safer place for the saints than the church, and, there is no more dangerous place for hypocrites than the church.
False teachers are overcome with a particular and tragic kind of slavery. Having come within inches of freedom, they reject that freedom for slavery. It is one thing to walk in the darkness, another to refuse the way of righteousness. When an Ammonite king burned his child as an offering to Molech it was a horrid evil, but it was far more evil when Manasseh did likewise, for he, knowing the way of righteousness, turned from the holy commandment of God. False teachers exchange a slavery of ignorance for a slavery that rejects the true knowledge of Jesus Christ.
It is worse to sin in the light than in the dark. It is a sin worthy of an eternal hell to sin against the light of the finite Sun, that is, the light of natural revelation as it declares the glory of God. It is a sin worthy of the hell of hell to sin against the more radiant light of the eternal Son, the light of special revelation, the light of the glorious gospel of Christ.
The way to deepest darkness is found in the light. Be warned not just of false teachers, nor only of heeding them, but of becoming one. Before any are false teachers, they are false believers. As you sit under the preaching of the gospel, that gospel will be either your great salvation or your great damnation.
For as the same fire causes gold to glow brightly, and chaff to smoke ; and under the same flail the straw is beaten small, while the grain is cleansed ; and as the lees are not mixed with the oil, though squeezed out of the vat by the same pressure, so the same violence of affliction proves, purges, clarifies the good, but damns, ruins, exterminates the wicked. And thus it is that in the same affliction the wicked detest God and blaspheme, while the good pray and praise. So material a difference does it make, not what ills are suffered, but what kind of man suffers them. For, stirred up with the same movement, mud exhales a horrible stench, and ointment emits a fragrant odour. —Augustine, The City of God
“But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction” (2 Peter 2:12 ESV).
Long before President Trump described the members of MS-13 as animals, Peter used that word to describe a far more deadly gang. False teachers are like animals in that their behavior is irrational and instinctual. Paul spoke of this instinct which we all have in Adam as the “passions of the flesh” and “the desires of the body and the mind.” This impulse in false teachers is set loose and wed to audacious arrogance (2 Peter 2:10). Some false teachers may appear intellectual and have many academic accolades but what really drives them isn’t the mind, but an animal like lust, craving, and desire.
Additionally, their blasphemy, for that is what their false teaching is, is a further expression of their animal-like, irrational instinct for they blaspheme “about matters of which they are ignorant.” Consider how often false teachers make a big deal of obscure and vague passages in the Scriptures. Their claims of new revelation are really just a cover-up for ignorance. One of fresher laid piles of heresy is known as the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). People like Bill Johnson of Bethel Church in Redding California are regarded as new apostles, just like those of old. John MacArthur quips concerning the NAR, “It is not new, it is not a reformation, and it is certainly not apostolic.” Their arrogance is a guise to veil their ignorance—blasphemous ignorance.
Because our theological walls are down, these animals are allowed to arise within the church (2 Peter 2:1). Peter pulls back the sheep’s clothing to reveal the hideous wolf beneath. Peter’s description of these animal-like predators is meant to revolt, somewhat like watching a predator tear into its prey on a nature documentary. This is not a pleasant chapter, but it is a most necessary one.
“The glorious city of God is my theme in this work… a city surpassingly glorious.
We must also speak of the earthly city, which, though it be mistress of the nations, is itself ruled by its lust of rule. —Augustine, The City of God
“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1 ESV).
In the second chapter of his second letter, Peter unleashes, not on false teaching, but false teachers. One commentator aptly captures the tone writing, “ ‘Refuting’… is not quite the word for Peter’s language; pummeling, denouncing, castigating, condemning, attacking, and assaulting are more accurate descriptions of what Peter does to his opponents. He offers a few arguments in response to false teaching in chapter 3, but chapter 2 is mainly occupied not with refutation but denunciation of the most severe sort.”
Though Peter is writing this letter near his death (1:14), the apostle could still grow fiery hot, though now, in contrast to his youth, we see the beauty of a sanctified flame. The potentially dangerous wildfire has become a useful blowtorch. This is the most extended and intense treatment of false teachers in the New Testament and it is blessedly brutal.
How far are we from making any denunciations of false teachers that approach this? Something is seriously wrong if you think Peter unloving or unChristian. That so many do think this wrong demonstrates how unloving and unChristian we are.
Consider how incapable the contemporary church is of even identifying or understanding the danger. The late R.C. Sproul well diagnosed the epidemic upon us writing:
“We are living in perhaps the most anti-intellectual period in the history of Christendom—not anti-academic or anti-scientific but anti-mind. I doubt if there has ever been a time in church history when professing Christians have been less concerned about doctrine than they are in our day. We hear almost daily that doctrine does not matter that Christianity is a relationship, not a creed. There is not simply indifference toward doctrine but outright hostility, which is exceedingly dangerous and lamentable. We cannot do even a cursory reading of the Word of God without seeing the enormous emphasis accorded to doctrine and that unsound doctrine and false teaching are not merely errors in abstraction but are profoundly destructive to the life of the people of God.”
We cannot identify the false because we don’t know the true, nor do we care.
In addition to animosity towards doctrine, we are indifferent to history. Few Christians have any knowledge of heresies such as Arianism, Pelagianism, or Unitarianism. The church has fought heresy, condemned it, and crafted creeds and confessions in response, but we’re so ignorant that these weeds are allowed to sprout up again and again unnoticed. If we will not learn from history, we must be prepared to be one of her lessons.
False teachers will rise, and false teachers will fall. We must know this, and must recognize them lest we share in their destruction.
All things are beautiful because you made them, but you who made everything are inexpressibly more beautiful. —Augustine, Confessions