The Reality of Eternal Punishment

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untitledThe Scripture does not take a moderate stance on hell. The Bible clearly teaches that all those who reject the grace and mercy of God in this life will ultimately face judgment in hell and be cast into the lake of fire (Mark 9:42-48; Matthew 5:20-30; 24-25; Luke 16:19-31; Paul in 2 Thess. 1:5-10; Hebrews 10:27-31; James 4:12; 5:1-5; 2 Pet. 2:4-17; Jude 13-23; and John in Rev. 21:8; 22:15.). The Lord Jesus Himself stands out as hell’s chief spokesman (Luke 16:19–31). While many Christians agree that hell awaits those who reject Christ as Lord and Savior, many disagree over the nature of the punishment that is to come.

Many evangelicals today are beginning to reject and scoff at the “traditionalist view” of hell, namely that hell will be an eternal, conscious torment for sinners. Many in Christendom are proposing the view of conditionalism, which is a version of annihilationalism. In the next couple of posts I will seek to accurately represent the conditionalist view and consider its errant arguments  What every person must know is that there can be only one correct interpretation to the problem raised in this post. Eternal punishment is either eternal or not—there is certainly no middle ground.

Clarification

Let me make a clarification before I tackle the subject of eternal punishment in the next few posts. My heart is very heavy as I write about the eternal conscious torment of sinners.  I know that hell represents a frightening, awful reality.  Please know that I just want to clarify what Scripture teaches because I love people and want them to know the truth contained in Scripture.  The tone might seem to be lacking in compassion, but that is not my intention.  May we all marvel at God’s grace in that He does not want people to die in their sins and face judgment (Ezek 33:11; 2 Pet. 3:9)! I pray that the shocking realities of hell found in Scripture will never come upon anyone reading this post.  I pray that this post will encourage people to truthfully interact with the truth about hell in the Bible.

Nothing Lasts ForeverConditionalism

Conditionalism posits that those who reject Christ will be completely consumed, eventually annihilated out of existence in hell because of their failure to obtain/receive the gift of eternal life. This means that in hell there will be final, irreversible destruction and ultimate closure with God, described in Scripture as eternal death (Rom 6:23). This view is attempting to convince people that the terrible news of eternal, conscious torment is not as bad as previously considered by Christian leaders throughout the centuries.  The conditionalist does maintain that hell’s inhabitants will possibly experience a time of suffering and punishment, but that judgment for each sinner will only be proportionate to the sins one committed. However long the wicked will suffer in hell, the time will be finite. Therefore, man’s soul is not guaranteed to last into eternity.  Everlasting life is only realized by those receive it from God (Rom 6:23).

Philosophical Arguments for Conditionalism

Next post will consider some exegetical/linguistic arguments for conditionalism.  But let’s consider now a couple of the most common philosophical arguments from the conditionalists.  Clark Pinnock is one of the most outspoken proponents of conditionalism, and he argues the emotional side most persuasively in his article in his Christianity Today article The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent. Here is a small “emotional punch” of his that bears repeating:

The need to correct the traditional doctrine of hell also rests on considerations of the divine justice. What purpose of God would be served by the unending torture of the wicked except sheer vengeance and vindictiveness? Such a fate would spell endless and totally unredemptive suffering, punishment just for its own sake…But unending torment would be the kind of utterly pointless and wasted suffering which could never lead to anything good beyond it.  Furthermore, it would amount to inflicting infinite suffering upon those who have committed finite sins. It would go far beyond an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. There would be a serious disproportion between sins committed in time and the suffering experienced forever.[1]

So how does one respond to these accusations like Pinnock’s above concerning God’s justice being compromised by the traditional view of hell? Is God unjust by sending people to unfair judgment?

imagesServes No Purpose

Conditionalists believe that endless punishment for humans serves no purpose.  Pinnock and others believe God’s allowance of endless punishment is vindictive, vengeful, utterly pointless, and wasted.[2] The Scriptures begs to differ. The Scripture asserts that God’s judgment will settle every single moral problem, not create any.[3] God’s judgment on fallen man is not evil or vindictive, but completely just, holy, righteous, necessary, and even glorious (Rom 9:19-23). God’s character is beautiful because He is just in His character. In fact the Biblical authors were not so concerned with how God could be just if He punished the wicked forever, but rather with how God could be just and not punish evildoers immediately.  Man must be very careful to not presume that human minds are the authority and that they have to right to suggest that endless punishment seems to serve no purpose.  There is nothing in Scripture that tells us what about God is fair and what is unfair.  God is just…every time!

Throughout Scripture men struggled bitterly with how gracious and merciful God is with evildoers (Jonah and Habakkuk). Essentially the main so-called “problem” of the Bible that the gospel fixes revolves around how God can be holy and just and still forgive rebels who hate Him.  Interestingly enough, the New Testament writers used the doctrine of hell as part of their moral reasoning. However, unlike the modern conditionalists, the biblical authors had their questions answered by the teaching of hell.[4] Hell answered the ultimate questions related to the justice of God. In fact the apostles often used the doctrine of hell to encourage believers who suffered at the hands of unfair and evil persecutors (2 Peter 2 and Rev. 6:10). When God reveals the hearts and thoughts of every person on judgment day, every person will give a full account of his life and realize and know the utter depth of their sin, and believers will be able to more fully appreciate the sacrifice of Christ on their behalf (I Cor. 4:5; Heb. 4:12-13).

John PiperFinite Sin vs. Infinite Punishment

Is there disparity between sins committed in real time by humans and the everlasting sentence handed down by God? If one holds this view, then their view of man and God’s justice is skewed. Man is ultimately not punished for a “finite” crime in hell. Man’s sin and rebellion is against the infinite, sovereign Creator, and therefore is hardly “finite.” Sin is not dealing with crimes against fellow humans, but against God Almighty.  Every person commits crimes against God every day when they flagrantly break His commands and worship other things other than the Creator. The better question to ask is why sinners still get to live, not whether they are being treated fairly. While a conditionalist sees the eternal punishment of sinners as the worst reality to God, Scripture makes it clear that sin is actually the ultimate offense in God’s universe. Hell is the consequence, but sin is the crime. It is like trying to answer the question, “what’s worse, the murder or the life sentence?”  Because sin is inherently against a holy and perfect God, infinite in His perfections, so sin requires an infinite and endless punishment. The issues comes down to man being presumptuous and thinking he needs to determine for God what is just and unjust. It would be wise and greatly beneficial to determine from His Holy Word what He deems just and unjust.

Jesus is abundantly clear, for He will say to the saved, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). Jesus will say to the lost, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41).

Furthermore, Christ’s atonement is compromised in the conditionalist view. For since God the Father paid an infinite price in the death of His Son to save mankind from sin’s penalties, it only follows that the penalties from which mankind had to be saved were also infinite. Conditionalism must claim that the penalty of sin committed by man then is not infinite, thus making the death of Christ for sin cheapened.

Next post will consider several other arguments espoused by the conditionalist position. The truth about hell should be carefully and soberly studied, for the topic at hand is truly of eternal significance.

 

[1]  Pinnock, Clark H. “The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent,” (CTR 4 Spring 1990), 255.

[2] As one reads the conditionalist literature, it is noticeable that their adherents use pejorative language like “torture” rather than a more appropriate work like “punishment,” which is the biblical view and teaching. This is one of their ploys to try to reach people to their side through emotions.

[3]  A very helpful article on this subject is David F. Well’s article, “Everlasting Punishment,” ChrT 31 (March 20, 1987): 41-42.

[4] Morgan, Christopher H. Hell Under Fire, 209.

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About Brett Smith

Brett Smith is a graduate of Bob Jones University and is currently pursuing his M.Div. at The Master’s Seminary. A native of Chicago, Brett serves on the Events staff at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA.

  • Jason

    Brett, I hear this a lot, “Because sin is inherently against a holy and perfect God, infinite in His perfections, so sin requires an infinite and endless punishment.” I understand the logic behind it, but does one have to agree to this to see and believe in an eternal hell? Also, What Scripture reference does this come from?