What’s fair about eternal punishment?

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Those who look at the problem of evil long enough sometimes come to the conclusion that perhaps there is only one problem of evil, hell. 

There are some in a position where they want to redefine hell, so it is a place of annihilation, so you don’t go on forever there. But we must remember that if hell exists, it is by definition other worldly and although it may not make sense to us, that doesn’t mean that eternal punishment doesn’t make sense in the realm we cannot see.

John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problem of Evil (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 435.

We tend to view the fairness of hell only from a worldly perspective; that is, from the perspective of living on planet Earth for 70, 80, 90, or 100 years. But consider that Satan and the fallen angels may have already been alive for the equivalent of eight-hundred-thousand-billion-trillion-centillion earth years. If that is the case (we have no idea how long ago God created the angels), then to punish them for 1 year or even 1000 years might seem as short to them as sentencing a mass murderer to one day of hard labor. In addition, we tend to downplay the significance of human sin and view humans as less sinful than they really are. But we should remember that creaturely sin resulted in war in heaven! And all human rebellion against God is akin to Satan’s rebellion against the Lord, which, directly or indirectly, resulted in every suffering, sickness, rape, torture, and death that ever happened or will happen on planet Earth.

Revelation 12:7

And all the suffering on this planet doesn’t take into account who knows how much horror in the kingdom of heaven. To say that rebellion in God’s kingdom is a big deal is akin to saying that global thermonuclear war is inconvenient. All the wars in the history of this world and heaven are the result of sin. We drastically underestimate the horror of rebellion. So, with humility in mind, here are some things to consider.

Hell’s nature

It is well agreed by Christian theologians that we shouldn’t get bogged down with imagery of hell. Robert Peterson, in his book Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment, puts it well: 

“Should we understand the fires of hell as literal flames? The answer is no. As Calvin saw long ago, God did not intend for us to do so. If we take literally the image of hell as fire, it clashes with other images of hell, for example, hell as darkness, or hell as the wicked being cut to pieces (Matt. 24:51). Rather than giving us literal pictures of the fate of the wicked, God uses dreaded pictures from this world to present the terrible reality of hell in the next world. I stand with the majority of contemporary conservative scholars in understanding the biblical imagery of hell metaphorically rather than literally”.

Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1995), 192.

These images were never intended to be taken literally, but to inform us of how hell is an awful place where we don’t want to be.

Are we in danger of making it sound less awful than it is by not depicting it like a Dante’s Inferno script? No, what we’re simply saying is it’s not a literal torture wrack with your limbs being permanently stretched. Many of the descriptions of hell portrayed by people have no reference at all in the Bible. It’s like saying everyone who gets life imprisonment are daily ripped apart by Sharks and Lions.

Jesus on hell

We find in Luke 16 a crucial passage where Jesus speaks of hell.

There, Jesus tells us of a rich man who didn’t help a sickly beggar named Lazarus who lay outside his gate. Jesus said that after both Lazarus and the rich man died, the rich man was in “Hades, being in torment” and he saw Abraham at a distance and called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame” (verses 23-24). Abraham replied, 

Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” And [the rich man] said, “Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” And he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (verses 26-31). 

Notice that Jesus didn’t depict the rich man as screaming hysterically in anguish and so pained by the flames that he was incoherent. Jesus could have done that, but He didn’t. Instead, we read of a man who, rather than screaming hysterically, is able to make requests, carry on a conversation, lodge arguments, and form rebuttals. His thinking, however mistaken, is still intact. His calling Abraham “father” could even be considered polite (albeit self-serving).

Some argue that Jesus’ purpose in this story is not to tell us about the condition of those in hell. But, as Larry Dixon points out, all Scripture is God-breathed, and “unless one is prepared to suggest that Jesus is passing on inaccurate information about the afterlife, why should Luke 16 not be understood to reflect a general picture of what happens to the righteous and the wicked at death?” Also, Murray Harris writes that “it is not illegitimate to deduce from the setting of the story the basic characteristics of the postmortem state of believers and unbelievers.” Harris points out that “both are conscious of their surroundings,” have a “memory of the past,” and have “retained their capacity to reason.” The rich man could have been screaming incoherently, but he wasn’t.

Larry Dixon, The Other Side of the Good News: Confronting the Contemporary Challenges to Jesus’ Teaching on Hell (Wheaton, IL: Bridgepoint, 1992),

Murray J. Harris, “The New Testament View of Life After Death,” Themelios 11 (January 1986): 48. 

The Justification of hell

The unrepentant occupants

So firstly and obviously, if those in hell are eternally unrepentant, then eternal separation is consistent. Romans 3:11 tells us that no one seeks God on their own (they need the aid of the Holy Spirit, to which they don’t have when separated from God).  

When God’s wrath is poured out on the wicked in Revelation 16:9, we read that “they were seared with intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him”. Verse 11 says that they “cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done”. 

Similarly, Revelation 9:20-21 tells us, 

“The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts”.

Revelation 9:20-21

Some find this hard to grasp, but let’s explain a quick story for those who find it hard to grasp.

  1. What if your partner cheated on you? You might forgive her
  2. What if your partner cheated on you and was unrepentant of her actions but still wanted to remain friends?
  3. What if your partner cheated on you over and over, was unrepentant but still wanted to remain friends, for all eternity?

Could you live like that? For eternity? (No choice of leaving them by the way). I think we could agree it would be a horrid life to live like this forever, but what’s important to note is not the eternal part, but the level of punishment received for most, especially with the graphic images people have proposed.

In this scenario, why should we ever think hell’s occupants would repent? The rich man to Lazarus shows no sign of that, he also shows no sign of wanting to escape (we’ll get to that).

Also, no where in scripture does it say people will repent, that there is a purgatory. It  just isn’t mentioned.

The rich man to Lazarus is clearly unrepentant, he still sees Lazarus as a tool, commanding him about despite his position. The rich man tells Lazarus to warn others since he thinks the evidence was insufficient! The irony of this is that Lazarus was actually raised from the dead after being known to be dead. How do people react? They try to kill him again! (John 12:9-10). It’s not evidence, it’s the heart.

Hard hearts

We have no reason to think their nature will dissipate when it comes to judgement, the difference for them is all their actions will be exposed. 

Zygmunt Bauman, in his book Modernity and the Holocaust, gives us insight as to how, under pressure, otherwise nice people are not anyone we would want to be around: 

A few years ago a journalist of Le Monde interviewed a sample of former hijack victims. One of the most interesting things he found was an abnormally high incidence of divorce among couples who went jointly through the agony of hostage experience. Intrigued, he probed the divorcees for the reason for their decision. Most of the interviewees told him that they had never contemplated a divorce before the hijack. During the horrifying episode, however, “their eyes opened,” and “they saw their partners in a new light.” Ordinary good husbands “proved to be” selfish creatures, caring only for their own stomachs; daring businessmen displayed disgusting cowardice; resourceful “men of this world” fell to pieces and did little except bewailing their imminent perdition.

 Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1989), 6. 

Those who understand the depths of human depravity won’t be surprised by such stories. This answers another objection about hell: Could any enjoy heaven knowing that their loved ones are there? But when our loved ones’ rejection of God is plain and their true attitude toward others is revealed, no Christian will wish they could spend eternity with such a person—just as spouses who experienced the hijacking together realized that they couldn’t go on being married to such a sniveling coward. Hell will seem oddly fitting.

The occupants of hell won’t want to be with God

Not only will hell’s occupants be unrepentant, but they will have no desire to be with God. They will be people so locked in on their own way of doing things that God just doesn’t compute for them. They simply cannot want God. It’s clear those in hell will hate hell, but would they enjoy heaven? Well no, rebels by definition don’t want to live God’s ways, that’s why they’re rebels.

Dallas Willard put it well: “I am thoroughly convinced that God will let everyone into heaven who, in his considered opinion, can stand it.”

Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2002), 56

C.S. Lewis thought this: “The doors of hell are locked on the inside. I certainly do not mean that ghosts may not wish to come out of hell…but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved.”

It’s a striking thing to say but I believe it to be true under the Christian view of hell.

Hell as a present and future deterrent

Throughout the ages, many have repented of their sins out of a fear of hell, and I wonder if hell might not serve to reassure the saints in heaven of rebellion’s awful results? Perhaps the existence of an eternal hell will serve as an eternal reminder of the horror of rebellion? Even many annihilationists (People in hell will one day be destroyed forever) agree that some punishment is necessary to deter rebellion. After all, free beings can’t think that they can get off scot-free after they have raped and tortured others to death. So let’s get something straight: Just about everyone—even non-Christians—thinks that those who commit certain evils should be punished. Thus, when it comes to hell, we are talking only about a matter of degree—how much punishment is enough—not whether there should be punishment at all.

Will many go to hell?

This is one of those questions where actually the numbers don’t matter. What is God reduced it to just 10 billion? How about 10 million? How about 100? How about 10? Would we actually be satisfied? Coming to a number in itself would raise concerns as to why you’d stop there. 

What’s the point of arguing, as some do, that for God to be loving there should be fewer people in hell? After all, if just one person will be unfairly punished in hell, we could not live with that. On the other hand, if hell is the fair destiny of rebellious people, why argue that fewer should go there?

Could we ever feel good about people being there?

Are we meant to feel good about it? It’s a reminder of rebellion. As a Polish person, can I ever feel good about what Hitler did to distant relatives of mine? No, there isn’t a way. But the Holocaust reminds me what happens when certain figures are allowed into power and the consequences. Germany learned from this also. But I’m never meant to feel good about it, just cautious of it. I’m sure glad hell exists from the perspective of, if it did not exist, and rebellious actions had to trash our lives for eternity, no one would be satisfied and God would be far from just. The idea of an unrepentant Hitler cuddling up to my Polish Grandparents horrifies me, a just God would not let an unchanged heart into his presence and amongst us for eternity.

Whatever we think hell might be like or why eternal punishment might be fair, we should always remember that the God who created hell also allowed His Son Jesus to volunteer to be tortured to death on the cross to pay for our sins so that we don’t have to go there.


Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil?: Compelling Answers for Life’s Toughest Questions

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