The Goodness of God and an Eternal Hell
How can a “good” God condemn someone to hell forever?
The late Bertrand Russell, a renowned British agnostic, authored a small publication titled Why I Am Not A Christian. One of the reasons he cited for his unbelief was that Jesus Christ taught that there is an eternal hell for the wicked. Russell could not harmonize Christ’s doctrine about hell with the biblical concept of a just and benevolent God; hence, he rejected the teaching of Jesus and inclined toward the belief that there is no God. Russell, who lived a life of reckless abandon, echoed the sentiments of Cain: “My punishment is greater than I can bear.” On that basis, he became a determined opponent of true religion.
The problem of reconciling eternal retribution with the goodness of God has also had a significant impact on the religious world. Many religions, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and the World-Wide Church of God (Armstrongism), have rejected the doctrine of the eternal punishment of the wicked. Even the churches of Christ have had their advocates of this erroneous viewpoint (cf. Fudge, 1982).
SOME AD HOMINEM ARGUMENTS
An ad hominem (meaning, “to the man”) argument is a type of reasoning employed to focus upon an opponent’s inconsistency. Let us, at the outset of this discussion, utilize such in conjunction with the “no-hell” theory.
First of all, a major premise of the no-eternal-punishment dogma is the notion that such a concept is at variance with true justice. The argument might be framed like this. The Bible speaks of a “just” and “good” God; it also teaches the doctrine of eternal hell. These two positions are mutually exclusive. Therefore, the Scriptures are inconsistent, and cannot be true. We insist, however, that those who thus argue are under obligation to defend their use of the terms “just” and “good.” By whose standard are these character traits to be measured? The critics of the Bible must not be allowed to become “theological dictionaries unto themselves”! Their reasoning is based solely upon their personal ideas of how goodness and justice should be expressed. If it is true that the Scriptures teach that God has appointed eternal punishment for impenitently evil people; and if it is likewise true that the Bible affirms the justice and goodness of Jehovah, then it must follow that eternal punishment is not inconsistent with the nature of God. It is only at odds with some men’s perverted sense of goodness/justice.
Second, no one (skeptic or otherwise) is ready to concede that evil-doers are unworthy of any type of punishment. It is recognized that no society could survive in such an atmosphere. Should the rapist, the robber, and the murderer be told: “Admittedly, you have done wrong, but we (society) will not punish you for your crimes. That would be unjust.”? Is there anyone who argues that there should be no consequences resulting from criminal conduct? Absolutely not! It is conceded, therefore, that “punishment” is not inconsistent with true justice.
Third, let us take our reasoning one step further. Is it the case that genuine justice can be served even when an evil man’s punishment is extended beyond the time actually involved in the commission of his crime? Do we, for example, in our criminal justice system, ask the murderer: “Sir, how long did it take you to kill your wife?”—and then assign his incarceration accordingly? Would justice be maintained by such an approach? Of course not. Here, then, is the point—true justice, combined with genuine goodness, allows the possibility that a wrong-doer may be required to suffer a penalty that is considerably longer than the duration of his evil. The real issue, therefore, is not punishment per se, or even protracted punishment; rather, it is eternal punishment. The skeptic (or religious materialist) simply wants to tell God how long the penalty is to be! Remember, though, in a system of true justice, the offender is not allowed to set his own sentence!
THE CASE FOR ETERNAL
PUNISHMENT BY A JUST GOD
Since no one ever has returned from the dead to discuss his/her personal experiences, this issue is not one that can be settled by human speculation; rather, it must be decided by divine revelation. When the relevant biblical data are assembled, it will be seen, even from man’s jaundiced viewpoint, that the fact of eternal punishment is not inconsistent with the character of a righteous God. Our case will be set forth in a series of interrelated propositions.
The Nature and Fall of Man
Man was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), hence, he is a volitional being. He has the power to choose good or evil. Joshua challenged Israel, “Choose you this day whom ye will serve” (Joshua 24:15). Humanity was not programmed to rebel; rather, men have “willed” to reject Heaven’s plan for living upon this Earth (see Matthew 23:37; John 5:40). Man was made upright, but he has generally sought the way of evil (Ecclesiastes 7:29). There are, however, consequences associated with this type of activity.
Sin and the Nature of God
The Bible clearly teaches that God is an absolutely holy Being (Isaiah 6:4; Revelation 4:8), i.e., He is utterly separate from evil. His holiness is demonstrated in numerous narratives in the Scriptures. At Sinai, the chasm between God and sinful Israel was vividly underscored (Exodus 19:12-25). The tabernacle arrangement, with its holy place and most holy place (the abode of God—Exodus 25:22) certainly was designed to instruct the Hebrews relative to Jehovah’s holy nature (Exodus 26:33).
The Lord’s holiness not only suggests that He cannot personally commit sin (James 1:13), but also means that He cannot ignore rebellion as if it had never happened. The prophet Habakkuk declared to Jehovah: “Your eyes are too pure to look upon evil [i.e., favorably—WJ]; you cannot tolerate wrong” (1:13, NIV). God takes no pleasure in wickedness (Psalm 5:4), and those who indulge themselves therein will be recipients of His vengeance (Psalm 11:6,7). The Bible affirms that the outpouring of divine wrath upon the ungodly is, in fact, a “revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2:5).
Sin Separates One from God
When humanity chose to sin, it made the decision to be separated from the holy Creator. The prophet clearly stated that, “your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you” (Isaiah 59:2). In biblical parlance, “death” generally denotes a separation of some sort. When the spirit departs the body, the body is dead (James 2:26). Similarly, when a person enters a state of sinfulness, he becomes spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1) for, by that act, he has determined to separate himself from God. Remember, this initiation of estrangement was not forced upon us by our Maker; it is totally our responsibility.
Hell—The Ultimate Separation
Inspiration describes the penalty of hell as “the second death” (Revelation 20:14), which suggests that it is the ultimate separation from God. This is forcefully emphasized in several New Testament passages. In the parable of the virgins, those unprepared virgins who “slept” (i.e., died), when awakened by the coming of the Bridegroom, wanted entrance into His presence, but the door was shut, and they were denied that association (Matthew 25:1-13). Unprofitable servants will be “cast out” (Matthew 25:30), and will hear the Lord exclaim: “Depart from me...” (Matthew 25:41). Paul expressed it like this. Those who know not God and who obey not the gospel, “shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). This abiding separation from God is but a continuation of the estrangement that the rebel cultivated in this life. The Lord is not responsible for such a reckless decision!
The Dramatic Horror of Separation from God
How is it possible to describe the spiritual state of being banished from the presence of the supreme Being of the Universe? Being alienated from Jehovah is the ultimate experience of horror. It is a separation from everything that is pure and good, everything that is right and wholesome, and everything that makes for joy and tranquility. It is, however, a spiritual experience, and since the human mind operates on the plane of the material, we really are not prepared to appreciate the gravity of such a circumstance. Hence, God has employed appropriate symbolism to describe the agonies of hell.
The spiritual abode of the wicked is a state of pain, trouble, and sorrow (Psalm 116:3). It is characterized by shame and contempt (Daniel 2:2), a realm of affliction (Jonah 2:2). Hell is a place of outer darkness where there is weeping and the gnashing of teeth (Matthew 23:30), indeed a sphere of eternal fire (Matthew 25:41), where the “worm” (a figure for gnawing anguish) does not die (Mark 9:48). The wicked are described as being beaten with stripes (Luke 12:47-48); they are recipients of God’s wrath and indignation; they experience tribulation and anguish (Romans 2:8-9); and they suffer punishment as a manifestation of the Lord’s vengeance (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9). Hell is a place of utter torment where no rest is ever known (Revelation 14:10-11). While it would not be an expression of responsible exegesis to literalize the figures of speech catalogued above, one never must forget that the symbolism is designed to emphasize the absolute terror of being abandoned by God. Moreover, the figures doubtless do not do justice to the actual reality of this eternal nightmare!
Is the Punishment Eternal in Duration?
As observed earlier, a major objection to the doctrine of hell is its everlasting nature. Must the suffering go on without end? Is it really just for one to be punished forever when he/she has only been devoted to evil for a relatively brief span in time? Consider this question for a moment. Is God just in granting eternal bliss to those who have served Him only temporarily in this world? I never have heard the Lord charged with unfairness in this instance! It must be emphasized again, the issue is not one that can be determined with the subjective reasoning of biased human emotion. The Bible must supply the answer.
The Scriptures explicitly affirm the abiding nature of divine retribution. The shame and punishment of evil people will be everlasting (Daniel 12:2; Matthew 25:46). “Everlasting” literally means “always being.” Note its contrast with “temporal” in 2 Corinthians 4:18. The claim is made, however, that “everlasting” does not always mean that which is of an absolutely unending nature. True, but in all such cases we learn that fact, not from the nature of the word itself, but from additional information in the Scriptures. The context is always the final judge of any word’s meaning. In Matthew 25:46, the “eternal” punishment of the wicked is contrasted with the “eternal” life (i.e., communion with God) of the righteous. Here, clearly, both are unending in duration. Further, Jesus emphasized that in hell, the agony does not cease (Mark 9:48), and John notes that the smoke of the “torment” of hell’s inmates “goeth up” (the Greek present tense stresses continuous action) “for ever and ever” (Revelation 14:11). Compare the duration of the blissful worship described in Revelation 4:8-10.
Also, the nature of the soul argues for eternal punishment. Consider the following: (a) Man is not wholly mortal, as materialists allege. If such were the case, one man could murder another and completely destroy him. Christ declared, however: “And be not afraid of them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). [NOTE: The word “destroy” does not mean annihilation. “The idea is not extinction but ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being” (Vine, 1940, p. 302).] One must conclude that the soul is immortal. (b) In one of the Lord’s discussions with the Sadducees, He said that in the resurrection men do not “die anymore: for they are equal unto the angels” (Luke 20:36). It is quite clear that there is something about man that lives forever. (c) When Peter wanted to encourage godliness in Christian women, he suggested that they should be clothed with the incorruptible apparel of a meek and quiet spirit (1 Peter 3:4). It hardly seems appropriate that a corruptible spirit should be clothed with incorruptible apparel. The implication concerning the abiding nature of the spirit is obvious. (d) Jesus said of Judas Iscariot that it would be better for him if he had never been born (Mark 14:21). If that traitor had no existence prior to his commencement as a human being, and if he was to go out of existence at death, why would it have been better had he never been born? The Lord’s statement plainly indicates that Judas’ soul, in a state of torment, would survive the death of his body.
Finally, the nature of the resurrected body demands that punishment for the wicked is everlasting. In 1 Corinthians 15:52, Paul affirms that the dead are raised “incorruptible” (cf. 1 Timothy 1:17, where the term is used of God). Elsewhere we are told that the unjust will be raised (John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15), and Christ acknowledged the punishment of both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28). All of these factors lead only to the conclusion that if there is punishment after death at all, then it must be eternal in its duration—unless it can be shown that there is some plan of salvation in that state. And for that view, there is absolutely no evidence at all! In fact, the Bible teaches just the opposite. (a) After death, judgment follows—not a second chance for salvation (Hebrews 9:27). (b) Between the Hadean abode of those who die saved, and those who die lost, “there is a great gulf fixed” (the perfect tense form in the Greek Testament stresses the abiding nature of the separation), and passage from one realm into another is an impossibility (Luke 16:26). Moreover, the rich man in that place of torment acknowledged that his brothers back on Earth needed to make preparation during their earthly sojourn; he knew there was no post-death plan of redemption (see Luke 16:28-31). (c) In the parable of the virgins (Matthew 25:1ff), those who “slumbered and slept” (a figure for dying) in an unprepared condition, awoke (i.e., were raised—Daniel 12:2) in precisely that same state, hence, were forbidden to enter in with the Bridegroom (Christ). There is no opportunity for obedience after death!
Divine Justice is Demonstrated by Equitable Punishment
An added dimension to this study surely must be that of “degrees of punishment.” The Scriptures teach that eternal punishment will be proportionate to what is deserved. Jesus said that in “the day of judgment” it would be “more tolerable” for those pagan cities that had received little spiritual influence, than for those cities which rejected Him in spite of seeing His marvelous deeds (Matthew 11:22-24). In one of His vivid illustrations, the Lord told of a certain servant who behaved himself in an unseemly fashion. When his master came and found him unprepared, he assigned him to punishment. Christ then made this statement: “And that servant, who knew his lord’s will, and made not ready, nor did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes; but he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. And to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required, and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask the more” (Luke 12:47-48). Christ indicated that there were varying levels of responsibility when He said to Pilate: “He that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin” (John 19:11). The writer of Hebrews spoke of those who would receive “sorer punishment” (10:29), and James admonished: “Be not many of you teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment” (3:1). Of one thing we may be certain, even in the punishment of those who are evil, the Judge of all the Earth will do what is right (Genesis 18:25).
God’s Goodness Reflected in the Cross
No one—logically and effectively—can argue against the benevolence of Jehovah in the face of the cross. As was observed earlier, the holiness and justice of Deity demands that sin be addressed. Appropriate reward for good and evil is an evidence that “there is a God that judgeth in the earth” (see Psalm 58:10,11). The problem is—how can a just God keep from sending rebellious man to hell? The answer is—through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Paul affirmed, in Romans 3:21-26, that God has shown His righteousness in setting forth Christ to be a propitiation for sin. In this loving act, He preserves His own righteousness, yet, at the same time, He becomes the Justifier of those who, through faith, are obedient to His Son (cf. Hebrews 5:8-9).
When Christ died upon the cross, it was not for any sin that He personally had committed. Though He was tempted in all points like as we are, He had no sin (Hebrews 4:15). When Peter wrote that Jesus “did not sin,” he employed a verbal tense which suggests that the Lord never sinned—not even once (1 Peter 2:22)! Isaiah repeatedly emphasized the substitutionary nature of the Lord’s death when he wrote: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.... Jehovah hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6). When the prophet declared that our “iniquity” was laid upon the Son of God, he employed a figure of speech known as metonymy (one thing is put for another)—in this case, the cause being put for the effect. In other words, God did not actually put our sins upon Christ, but He put the penalty of our wrongs upon His Son at Calvary. Christ bore our “hell” twenty centuries ago. In spite of the fact, therefore, that all sinners deserve to be lost, the Lord has provided a way to “escape the judgment of hell” (cf. Matthew 23:32). Again we stress—no man can argue against the love of God in light of His unspeakable gift at the cross!
When all of the data are gathered and analyzed in balance, the doctrine of eternal punishment is not at variance with the character of the Creator.
Fudge, Edward (1982), The Fire That Consumes (Houston, TX: Providential Press).
Vine, W.E. (1940), An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Westwood, NJ: Revell).