Contemporary critics of the historic Christian doctrine of eternal punishment, including critics whose theological convictions are generally evangelical, do not argue against this doctrine so much from the Scriptures. Their treatment of the Scriptural givens results from a prior and more basic conviction that the doctrine, in its traditional form, is theologically and morally repugnant. There are, according to these critics, fundamental considerations of theology, morality, and human emotion that militate against the notion that the God of the Scriptures would everlastingly punish the wicked in hell. As Clark Pinnock, speaking for these critics, has put it, “I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine, a theological and moral enormity, a bad doctrine of the tradition that needs to be changed.”1
This means that, no matter how inconclusive and unsubstantial may be the biblical arguments for annihilationism, the primary objections to the doctrine of hell still remain to be considered. To these arguments, then, we now turn.
INCOMPATIBLE WITH THE LOVE OF GOD?
Perhaps the most common — and to many as well, the most compelling argument — against the doctrine of eternal punishment, is the claim that it contradicts what we know from the gospel about the love of God. That God would pour out His wrath and displeasure upon the wicked by excluding them from the reach of His grace, seems incompatible with the biblical portrayal of God’s abundant love and unfailing mercy. If God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to save the world (John 3:16), how is it conceivable that He should punish the wicked everlastingly in hell?
According to this criticism, it seems needlessly cruel and vindictive that God’s displeasure with the unbelieving should continue to be revealed throughout the endless passage of time that marks the final state. How could this harmonize with the Scriptural testimony, often repeated and nowhere more dramatically manifested than in the person and work of Jesus Christ, that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ does not repay us according to our iniquities? That He is slow to anger and abounding in love? That, like an earthly father with His children, God takes pity upon us and remembers that we are dust (Psalm 103:8–14). The repugnance between the remarkable biblical testimony to the tenderheartedness of God’s love toward sinners, and the idea of the wicked being eternally tormented in hell. can only be resolved by denying the latter in favor of the former. 2
How should we respond to this charge that the doctrine of hell is incompatible with what the Scriptures reveal regarding God’s love? Though some aspects of an answer to this question will have to wait until we take up the issue of God’s justice and the doctrine of hell, at least two responses need to be made at this point.
First, though it may seem too concessive at first hearing, we must acknowledge a significant difference between God’s love and His wrath. Whereas the former is His natural and delightful work, the latter is His alien and reluctant work (Ezek.23:23, 30–32). God delights to save in a way that must be distinguished from His holy reluctance to punish or to destroy. To be sure, the Scriptures teach that God has purposed from all eternity to save the elect alone (Eph. 1:4–6). They also teach that God has chosen not to save others (Rom. 9:6–13). However, they do not teach that there is perfect symmetry or parallel between God’s sovereign purposes to save and not to save.
Some of the issues that arise in this connection are complex and difficult. But the doctrine of hell has been needlessly burdened by defenders of the doctrine who neglect this difference between God’s joy and delight in the salvation of lost sinners (Luke 15:7, 10, 20–32) and His holy reluctance to punish the wicked. When the biblical theme of God’s patience with sinners, His desiring that they should turn from their wicked ways and be saved (1 Tim. 2:9; 2 Pet. 3:9). is overlooked or minimized, the doctrine of hell suffers distortion. Similarly, when professing Christians exhibit nothing of God’s love toward His enemies, but rather take a kind of perverse delight in the punishment of the wicked — then God is mocked and His gospel is corrupted. Defenders of the biblical doctrine of hell who do not echo the biblical overtures of God’s mercy and grace to any and all, who do not share Christ’s sorrow over the unbelief of His fellow Israelites (Luke 19:41–44), who do not understand the apostle Paul’s agony over the unbelief of his countrymen (Rom. 9:2–3; 10:2) such defenders of the doctrine bring disrepute to the grace of God and encumber the biblical teaching about hell.3
The biblical doctrine of hell has nothing to do with a divine cruelty or vindictiveness that takes delight in the condemnation of the wicked in the same way in which God delights to show mercy. Those who through sin and disobedience forfeit any claim upon God’s favor should look only to themselves to find the occasion for their punishment in hell. Their exclusion from God’s blessed presence is a consequence of their unwillingness to seek Him while He was to be found, to call upon Him while He was still near (lsa. 55:6–7).
Second, this objection to the doctrine of everlasting punishment tends to isolate one feature of the biblical doctrine of God, the attribute of the love of God, from other features such as God’s justice or His holiness. In the process, significant dimensions of the Bible’s teaching are diminished or rejected outright. The love of God is made the over-riding and defining attribute that truly expresses God’s nature, whereas other attributes are said to be derivative or subordinate. Furthermore, having diminished or rejected other aspects of the biblical doctrine of God, the love of God is itself redefined in ways that make it inconsistent with any doctrine of divine punishment or retribution. The love of God, accordingly, becomes a kind of sentiment, making no demands upon those to whom it is communicated, and imposing no penalty upon those who willfully refuse it. The love of God, as it has been demonstrated in the person and work of the crucified and risen Christ, is confused with a sentiment of unconditional affirmation and acceptance, whether Christ is received or rejected.
In the biblical doctrine of God, however, God’s holiness and justice are emphasized as well as His love. Each of these attributes of God’s nature discloses who He is, so that it is impermissible to play one attribute off against another. God’s justice is not incompatible with His love. Rather. these qualities mutually define each other. God is loving in His justice, and just in His loving. He could not be otherwise without ceasing to be the God He is. To speak of God’s love at the expense of His justice, accordingly, would be to deny the biblical view of God in favor of a doctrine that exhibits more affinity to modern notions of love than the Scriptural understanding.
INCOMPATIBLE WITH THE JUSTICE OF GOD?
Another related theological objection to the doctrine of everlasting punishment is that it is unjust. If one of the cardinal rules of justice is that the punishment should fit the crime, then the doctrine of eternal punishment involves a form of punishment that outweighs the crime. For a creature to suffer unendingly under God’s displeasure in hell represents a disproportionate meting out of punishment. Annihilatiolists, though they recognize the need for God’s justice to be exercised in the punishment or ultimate destruction of the wicked, typically argue that the doctrine of hell represents a gross disproportion between the limited offense of the sinner and the unlimited consequence that follows. To address this objection, we need to begin with a brief reflection upon the biblical view of justice, particularly the divine attribute of God’s justice.
Defining what we mean by justice and, in particular, by the justice of God, is no simple task. One place to begin is with the so-called lex talionis, the law of retribution set forth in the well-known words of Leviticus 24:19–20 “And if a man injures his neighbor. just as he has done, so it shall be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him.” The principle enunciated in this passage is one of due proportion or equity in the relation between offense committed and punishment exacted. The perpetrator of the offense must, by means of a corresponding punishment, be brought to acknowledge and pay for the offense. It would be wrong or unjust, were the perpetrator to get off “scot free,” without a due admission of guilt and an appropriate punishment suffered. Whether the offense is small or great, justice demands that redress be made in the form of owning up to the offense and suffering the proper consequences.
This rule of justice presumes that there is a standard of right and wrong that when violated in greater or lesser degrees, requires that the wrongdoing be admitted and some form of amends be made. Parents whose children misbehave know (or should know) well that such misbehavior needs to be pointed out and a suitable penalty be paid. Often the most difficult questions they face concern the appropriateness of the penalty and the fairness of its application in expressing proper restraint and corresponding love. But it is irresponsible to overlook the offense or to neglect the discipline the offense demands. Similarly, in the administration of justice by the civil authorities, the law distinguishes clearly between different crimes, and obligates the courts to assign corresponding penalties. One of the difficulties, of course, that a biblical view of justice faces in the modern age is the tendency to downplay this idea of retribution — imposing an equitable punishment upon the criminal — and to emphasize almost exclusively the role of remediation in the administration of justice. If the only purpose of the judicial system is to restore the offender. then the notions of just recompense and suitable punishment lose their place.4
Now, according to the biblical doctrine of God, one of God’s characteristic and defining attributes is His justice. Because God is just and cannot deny Himself, He always deals with human sin in a manner that upholds the strictest rule of justice, including the rule of appropriate retribution. Though this dimension of God’s nature often receives short shrift in contemporary theology, the Scriptures are full of references to God’s justice, to His unwillingness to permit sin to go as the One who will judge all human beings with justice. What human conscience and the rule of law demand in the way of acknowledging and suffering the consequences of wrong-doing only reflect the justice of God in His administration of the affairs of His creatures. God is, biblically understood, the supreme Lawgiver and the Vindicator of the right (Ps. 119:137–8; 145:17; Jer. 12:1; 1 Jn. 2:29). He is the One who maintains righteousness and finally vindicates the moral order He has established (Ps. 99:4; Rom. 2:6,7).
This understanding of God’s justice underlies the biblical teaching about the final judgment. It also provides the necessary context within which to comprehend the atoning work of Jesus Christ on behalf of His people.
According to the biblical descriptions of God’s judgment, all those who are judged will be brought to recognize what they have done, whether it be good or bad. God’s justice will serve like a mirror to expose every wrongdoing, even those wrongs that might otherwise be hidden from view. The secret things, including the motives of the heart, will be revealed in the presence of God (1 Cor. 4:5; Rom. 2:16). Each person judged will receive at the hands of God what they have deserved (2 Cor. 5:10; Ps. 62:12; Jer. 17:10). No one will be able to escape this judgment (Acts 17:30ff.; Isa. 29:15ff.). All will be called to give an account of their lives and actions (Matt. 25:31–46). The purpose of this judging, and the exacting of an appropriate penalty, will be nothing other than the vindication of God’s justice, the revelation of His authority and rule in maintaining the right within His creation (Rev. 16:1–7; 19:1–6; Ps. 82:1, 8).
This raises an important question for which the biblical understanding of Christ’s atoning work provides the answer: how can God be just in pardoning sinners and treating with favor those who have offended against Him? Not all who are judged will be required to acknowledge their sin and suffer the just consequences of their offense. All will acknowledge their sin and unworthiness, to be sure, but some, those who by the working of the Holy Spirit have trusted in Christ and repented of their sins, will be openly declared acceptable to God and the recipients of the rewards of His grace. The biblical answer to this question is fixed upon the cross of Christ. Christ by virtue of His life of obedience and His atoning death, met the demands and the penalties of the law on behalf and in the place of His own people. All those who are beneficiaries of Christ’s saving work as their Mediator are restored to favor with God and made acceptable to Him. In the biblical view, this work involved a perfect marriage or harmony between God’s love or mercy and His justice. God, in providing salvation through the work of Christ, shows Himself to be loving in His justice and just in His loving. As the apostle Paul describes it in Romans 3:21–26:
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
One interesting consequence of this biblical emphasis upon Christ’s atonement as a demonstration of God’s justice is what it tells us about the seriousness and gravity of human sin. The common objection to the doctrine of eternal punishment — that the punishment outweighs the crime-would seem to hold with equal force against the justice of Christ’s suffering and cross. Why would God be just in exacting an infinite penalty — the death of His own Son — were the offense limited in its seriousness? The justice of God in exacting the price of Christ’s atoning death would be imperiled, were some lesser or limited price adequate to meet the need of sinners. To take the measure or estimate the seriousness of human sin apart from a consideration of Christ’s cross and work of atonement would be to call into question the justice of God’s provision for our need. Ironically, John R.W. Stott, today a defender of annihilationism, has expressed this point as well as anyone in an earlier study, The Cross of Christ:
The doctrine of substitution affirms not only a fact (God in Christ substituted Himself for us) but its necessity (there was no other way by which God’s own holy love could be satisfied and rebellious human beings could be saved). Therefore, as we stand before the cross, we begin to gain a clear view both of God and of ourselves, especially in relation to each other. Instead of inflicting upon us the judgment we deserved, God in Christ endured it in our place. Hell is the only alternative. This is the ‘scandal’, the stumbling-block, of the cross. For our proud hearts rebel against it. We cannot bear to acknowledge either the seriousness of our sin and guilt or our utter indebtedness to the cross 5 (emphasis mine).
To state the matter more concisely: that Christ suffered the agony of hell to atone for our sins teaches us that hell is what we sinners deserve. This penalty for sin was infinite in its price precisely because human sin offends against the infinite majesty and worth of God Himself.6
There is one further consideration that requires comment in connection with the justice of eternal punishment. Though it is often assumed that the unbelieving and impenitent cease to sin at the judgment of God, it seems more probable that they continue to sin and live in hostility toward God throughout the final state.
When God delivers the impenitent over to hell, He can be said to give them not only what they deserve but also what they perversely continue to desire. To live apart from God and His favor is the epitome of the suffering of hell. But this is preCisely what the impenitent sinner seeks even in hell, namely, to live without God and in opposition to Him. D. A. Carson, for example, has argued that the continued sinning of the wicked in hell is the most probable scenario and may even be directly supported by Scripture (Rev. 22:10–11;16:21).7 If this be the case, the ongoing punishment of the lost will correspond to their ongoing sin and rebellion. On balance, this seems to be a more likely circumstance than that the lost would begin to love God and their neighbor, as the law of God requires. This likelihood cannot be conclusively demonstrated. However, it seems to fit the biblical givens better than the contrary assumption that the lost begin to live in full conformity to God’s will.
These considerations regarding the law of retribution, the justice of God, the atoning work of Christ. and the likelihood of continuing rebellion on the part of the lost in the final state, together confirm the justice of the doctrine of eternal punishment. Those who contest the justice of hell either fail to estimate properly the gravity of human sin against God or to respect the justice of God in dealing with it. There can be no escape from God’s justice: either Christ suffered it for us at the cross or we shall suffer it ourselves.
A BLEMISH UPON THE FINAL STATE OF THINGS?
The last objection to the doctrine of everlasting punishment that we will consider appeals to the glory and perfection of the final state. If Gods redemptive and re-creative purposes in Christ find their ultimate fulfillment in the consummation of all things. then the continued presence cl the wicked in hell would constitute a blemish upon the otherwise pristine state of the new creation. One articulate proponent of this argument, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, has pointedly stated this objection:
The conception of the endlessness of the suffering of torment and of the endurance of “living” death in hell stands in contradiction to this teaching [that is, the renewal of creation]. It leaves a part of creation which, un-renewed, everlastingly exists in alienation from the new heaven and the new earth. It means that suffering and death will never be totally abolished from the scene … To this it must be objected that with the restoration of all things in the new heaven and the new earth, which involves God’s reconciliation to himself of all things, whether on earth or in heaven (Acts 3:21; Col. 1:20), there will be no place for a second kingdom of darkness and death. Where all is light there can be no darkness; for “the night shall be no more” (Rev. 22:5). When Christ fills all and all and God is everything to everyone (Eph. 1:23; 1 Cor. 15:28), how is it conceivable that there can be a section or realm of creation that does not belong to this fulness and by its very presence contradicts it?8
To put the matter a bit more prosaically, these objectors insist that hell would deprive God’s program in history of a happy ending. At the end of the day, when all of God’s purposes in Christ will have reached their fulfillment. there will still be the presence of sin and sinners within the realm of God’s creation. The loose string of the presence of hell will mar the beautiful tapestry of God’s redemptive purpose brought to its appointed end.
Of all the objections to the biblical doctrine of hell, this one is the most difficult to answer, not because it is so persuasive, but because it is so speculative. For the argument to work, it has to be assumed that the reality of hell represents a kind of failure on God’s part to realize His purposes of grace. Hell would, on this view of things, be a kind of insuperable obstacle to the complete victory of God’s gracious work through Christ. The reach and effectiveness of God’s grace would be bounded. The embrace of God’s love would be frustrated at the borders of hell. But are these assumptions true to the biblical revelation regarding God’s purposes and the triumph of His kingdom?
Contrary to these assumptions, the biblical understanding of hell includes the conviction that, even in the punishment of the unbelieving and impenitent, God’s purposes and justice will in fact be vindicated. Hell does not represent a limitation upon the reach of God’s purposes or frustrate His redemptive work in Christ. In the judgment and ultimate punishment of the lost, God’s justice will be fully revealed. Every mouth will be stopped. No occasion for protest will be found. All will be held accountable to God, and no one will have reason to complain against the justice of His judgments (compare Rom. 2:19–20; 9:17,22–24). Indeed, all those for whom Christ shed His blood and on whose behalf He made atonement will be saved. Not one will be lost or snatched from His hand. Not one will be overlooked or forgotten. Certainly, not one of His own will fall outside of the reach of His gracious purpose to save (compare John 10:14–18, 27–29).
In the final analysis, this last objection rests upon an assumption that is nowhere set forth in Scripture. This assumption really disguises a form of universalism, since it asserts that all who are not redeemed by the grace of God must be annihilated. However, in the biblical understanding, God’s will and purpose are triumphant in both the salvation of His people and the condemnation of the lost.
The biblical teaching regarding hell and the eternal punishment of the lost is difficult to maintain in the face of the many assaults upon the doctrine today. Whether in the form of benign neglect9 or open hostility, whether registered by those who repudiate or defend the Christian faith-opposition to the doctrine of hell is all but overwhelming. Even the form in which I have cast my treatment of the doctrine in the foregoing has about it an air of defensiveness. Never in the history of the Christian church has this dimension of the Bible’s teaching regarding the future been more obviously on trial. Rather than close our consideration of this doctrine on a defensive note, however, I would like to conclude with a few general observations.
First, the doctrine of hell is a true test of our willingness to stay within the boundaries of Scripture when it comes to the subject of the future, the last things. At no point in our consideration of the Bible’s teaching about the future are we more inclined to allow our own judgments and opinions to take precedence over a straightforward exposition of the Bible’s teaching and the church’s historic understanding of that teaching. What we do with the subject of hell is, in that respect, a kind of litmus test of our readiness to follow the way set out for us in the Scriptures, even when that way proves at times to be difficult and unpleasant.
Second, the doctrine of hell has immense significance for the manner in which the church proclaims the gospel and addresses those who still live in unbelief and impenitence before God. Without endorsing what is often known as “Pascal’s wager,” it cannot be denied that, if the biblical teaching about hell is true, then it is scarcely possible to exaggerate the importance of seeking the Lord while He may be found, calling upon Him while He is still near. Though I will not attempt here to explore the ramifications of this doctrine for the Christian believer or the mission of the church, they are transparent and undeniable. The seriousness with which believers “work out their salvation with fear and trembling,” and the urgency with which the church preaches the gospel to the nations — these are a fair measure of conviction regarding the doctrine of eternal punishment. Ironically, perhaps one of the primary reasons that this doctrine is so little believed and confessed is the failure of many ostensibly orthodox Christians to live out of the reality of this doctrine. For it is a practical denial of hell to take a cavalier attitude toward one’s own salvation, or to treat with indifference the awful plight of those who are perishing in the darkness of unbelief.10
And third, an inappropriate fascination with, and literalistic understanding of the biblical imagery for hell have often encumbered the doctrine of hell. Fueled by the lurid imagery of Dante’s poetic descriptions in his Inferno, and the preaching of some over-zealous friends of the doctrine of hell, this kind of fascination with the doctrine can easily become an unnecessary stumbling block to understanding. We need to remember that the biblical imagery conveys something of the reality of hell, both as a place of punishment and exclusion from the presence of God’s favor. But such imagery ought not to be taken literalistically. We should not think that it enables us to imagine or begin to comprehend what hell really is like. What we should do is think soberly and carefully about the reality to which this language and imagery points us: the reality of being banished from the blessed presence of God, being under the felt impression of His everlasting displeasure, and being subjected to the perpetual frustration and fury of sinful, but futile, rebellion against His will.
J.I. Packer offers us sage advice along these lines, advice with which I should like to conclude our consideration of the doctrine of hell:
Do not speculate about the retributive process. Do not try to imagine what it is like to be in hell. The horrific imaginings of the past were hardly helpful, and often in fact proved a stumbling-block, as people equated the reality of hell with the lurid word-pictures drawn by Dante, or Edwards, or C.H. Spurgeon. Not that these men were wrong to draw their pictures, any more than Jesus was wrong to dwell on the fire and the worm; the mistake is to take such pictures as physical descriptions, when in fact they are imagery symbolizing realities of possible experience of which we can only say they are far, far worse than the symbols themselves. Our wisdom is rather to spend our lives finding ways of showing gratitude for the saving grace of Christ which ensures that we shall not in fact ever go to the hell that each of us so richly deserves, and to school our minds to dwell on heaven rather than on the other place, except when we are seeking, in Jude’s phrase, to snatch others from the fire. Let us then labor to be wise.11
1. “The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent,” 246.
2. For an older and sustained presentation of this argument, see Nels F. S. Ferre, The Christian Understanding of God (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951).
3. J.R.W. Stott expresses this in the form of a challenge (in Edwards and Stott, Essentials, p. 313): “I long that we could in some small way stand in the tearful tradition of Jeremiah, Jesus and Paul. I want to see more tears among us. I think we need to repent of our nonchalance, our hard-heartedness.”
4. J. I. Packer, in his The Problem of Eternal Punishment, pp. 7–8, acknowledges that hell involves a kind of divine retribution upon the lost sinner. Remarkably, however. he goes on to suggest that we should generally not “use vocabulary of punishment at all.” Rather, we should use terms to describe hell that are “conceptually clear but not emotionally loaded.” Though I have some sympathy for this suggestion-the terms “punish” and “torment” can easily be burdened with inappropriate connotations of vindictiveness, cruelty, arbitrariness, and excess — I do not see how it is possible to convey the biblical teaching without using these terms. Even Packer’s preferred term, retribution, if it is explained, will have to include a kind of just punishment that corresponds to the crime committed. Even the language used to describe Christ’s atoning work as a “penal” satisfaction makes clear that this language cannot be avoided altogether. One should use caution, of course, in using this language. But it can hardly be avoided.
5. John R.W. Scott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1986). p. 161.
6. The Heidelberg Catechism in Q. & A. 11 expresses well the infinite seriousness of sin because it is an offense against God: “God is indeed merciful. but He is also just; therefore His justice requires that sin which is committed against the most high majesty of God, be also punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul” (emphasis mine). The problem with most denials of the gravity of human sin is that they do not reckon with the infinite worth of the Triune God against whom all sin is ultimately directed. Because God is diminished, sin against Him is likewise diminished.
7. The Gagging of God, pp. 533–4. Compare D. A. Carson, How Long O Lord? Reflections on Suffering & Evil (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990). p. 102: “Perhaps, then, we should think of hell as a place where people continue to rebel, continue to insist on their own way, continue societal structures of prejudice and hate, continue to defy the living God. And as they continue to defy God. so he continues to punish them. And the cycle goes on and on and on.”
8. Philip Edgecumbe Hughes, The True Image, pp. 405-6.
9. Cf. “Hell’s Sober Comeback,” U.S. News & World Report (March 25, 1991), p. 56: “Hell has disappeared and no one noticed.”
10. See Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial, pp. 223–42, for a concise treatment of “What Difference Does It Make?”
11. J.I. Packer, The Problem of Eternal Punishment, pp. 14–15.