Hell

Article outline:

Theology: What is hell?
    Type of punishment
    Degrees of punishment
    Alternative doctrines
        Annihilationism
        Universalism
How can hell be just punishment?
    Is hell infinite punishment?
    Is unending punishment unjust?
Further objections
    Wouldn't everyone repent when faced with hell?
    If hell doesn't reform anyone, it must be sadistic
    Why doesn't God save everyone?
Further reading


Theology: What is hell?

The devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev 20:10-15)

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.' ...Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (Mt 25:41, 46)

Hell is a place of eternal, conscious suffering that serves as punishment for sinners. Everyone deserves to go to hell for their sins; the only way we can be saved from it is by accepting God's forgiveness as provided through Christ's sacrificial death. (That is, people have to truly repent and accept Christ as their Lord and Savior in order to be saved; mouthing words without truly believing in and loving God doesn't qualify as repentance.) God desires for everyone to repent and be saved: "'As surely as I live,' declares the Sovereign Lord, 'I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live'" (Ezekiel 33:11; see also Ezek 18:32). Yet not everyone will repent, so hell is necessary.

Type of punishment

While hell is often depicted as a place of unquenchable fire, this is not necessarily a literal depiction, for it's also described as a place of "darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Mt 25:30). Thus at least one, if not both, of these images is figurative. Consequently, one cannot say whether the punishment of hell consists of both physical and mental anguish or mental anguish alone. (Personally, I suspect the latter, since we won't have the same physical bodies that we do now - see Mt 22:30, 1 Cor 15:42-54.) It's generally believed that the anguish of those in hell is at least partly caused by their separation from the perfectly good and loving God.

Degrees of punishment

Many people don't realize that there are degrees of punishment in hell, just as there are degrees of reward in heaven. That there are degrees of punishment is made evident by the following passages:

"That servant who knows his master's will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows." (Lk 12:47-48)

"Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you." (Mt 11:21-24)

According to the above passages (and also Jn 9:41, 15:22, 24), those with greater knowledge of morality and/or greater knowledge of God (via exposure to the Gospel, witnessing of miracles, etc.) will be held more accountable and consequently receive greater punishment than those who are ignorant through no fault of their own. Allowance is also made for children too young to be held responsible for their actions (Dt 1:27-28, 34-39).

It's not directly stated that one's degree of punishment is also based on the severity of one's sins, but this is implied in several places, such as Matthew 16:27. It's also implied by the different degrees of punishment given for different sins in the Mosaic Law. One could argue that every sin is sin against God and all sins therefore deserve severe punishment or death, and explain the differing punishments in the Law as God's leniency towards people's hardened hearts (e.g. Mt 19:8). Yet the notion that all sins merit the exact same punishment goes against humanity's instincts; therefore it's something we would need to be taught to us by God. One would think that God would therefore have taught this lesson in the Law by decreeing that all sins receive the same punishment (e.g. exile, or a large fine or sacrifice). Yet not only are there degrees of punishment that precisely match the crime (e.g. Ex 21:23-25), there is a command about not punishing those who deserved to be whipped with more lashes than is right (Dt 25:2-3).

Alternative doctrines

Annihilationism

Annihilationism holds that the unsaved will be annihilated, either immediately after death or after experiencing a finite time of punishment. Annihilation after death is easy to rule out as it contradicts Jesus' teaching that there will be degrees of punishment, for immediate annihilation doesn't allow for any difference in fates.

Annihilation after a period of punishment (e.g. interpreting the "second death" in Revelation as a literal death) seems to be suggested by passages such as the following:

The Isaiah passage is quoted by Jesus in Mark 9:48, but in the greater context of verses 42-48 it would seem to refer to eternal punishment, as the part he quotes is "their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched", and as v. 43b says, "It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out."

The Greek word translated as "destruction" in both Php 3:19 and 2 Peter 3:7 is the same word used in Revelation 17:8, 11 concerning the beast, who will definitely experience eternal punishment (Rev 20:10).

As for Revelation, Rev 20:10-15 tells us that everyone who is condemned will end up in the lake of fire, which is a place of conscious, eternal torment at least for the devil, the beast and the false prophet. Rev 14:9-11 tells us that explicitly that some humans will suffer conscious, eternal punishment. Therefore it makes the most sense to assume that everyone else in the lake of fire will also remain conscious.

Finally, annihilationism contradicts passages like Matthew 25:46 which speak of hell as eternal punishment, in direct contrast to eternal life in heaven. (For more on annihilationism, see "Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell" by Alan Gomes, Part One and Part Two.)

Why doesn't God annihilate the wicked instead of punishing them forever? Annihilation of all those who don't repent and accept God doesn't allow for degrees of punishment. Would it be fair to give the same punishment of nonexistence to someone who had little exposure to moral teaching and whose worst sins were lying and cheating, and to someone who was deliberately cruel and tortured and killed others? Furthermore, annihilation is too lenient to be just, for the wicked can hardly be aware they're being punished or come to feel any guilt if they cease to exist. One might even say that it would be worth it to enjoy the immediate benefits of sin now and simply give up life after death, especially since many people already believe annihilation awaits them when they die.

Universalism

Universalism teaches that everyone will eventually repent and accept Christ. It fares even worse than annihilationism when compared to the Bible, for if no humans would ever be sent to hell, there would be no need for Christ and others to continually warn people about it. Matthew 5:29-30 particularly comes to mind: "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell." (For more, see the article on universalism.)


How can hell be just punishment?

Is hell infinite punishment?

The first thing to note about hell is that while it is unending punishment, it is not the maximum possible amount of punishment. First, there are degrees of punishment, so the suffering an individual experiences is in proportion to their guilt and not the maximum amount they could experience.

Second, is eternal punishment truly infinite punishment? I started thinking about this after reading a commentary by Gregory Koukl, No Eternal Punishment. Koukl isn't arguing that hell is not everlasting; rather, he tries to make a distinction between "eternal," or infinite time, and "everlasting," or time without end. This sounds rather odd, but his point is that infinity is really an abstraction, not something that can actually be experienced. In the afterlife, people will never reach a point where they can be said to have lived for eternity, or an infinite amount of time - at any given moment, they will have lived a finite amount. Consequently, the amount of punishment or joy they experience is not infinite either.

If you're into math, think of it like this: The argument that eternal punishment is infinite punishment assumes that we would compute the amount of suffering a person experiences over time as st, where s is the rate of suffering and t is the amount of time. We say that as t goes to infinity, so does st. This holds whether s is large (the rate of suffering of a person in hell) or small (the rate of suffering of a person on earth). Yet we would hardly say that living for an eternity on earth is the same as spending an eternity in hell, or that experiencing a slight ache every day for eternity is equivalent to experiencing acute torture for the same amount of time.

It's also worth pointing out that the infinite punishment argument assumes that time as we know it continues to pass after the final judgment, which is not necessarily the case. There may simply be an eternal moment, where time does not pass or where we no longer experience it as we do now.

Is unending punishment unjust?

Even given that hell is not infinite punishment, it is still unending punishment, something that many people don't think anyone deserves. The argument is often put forth that people are finite beings, who live a finite amount of time on Earth and are only capable of finite moral understanding and finite actions; therefore any sins they commit are finite and any just punishment must also be finite.

Let's examine each of these claims. The first claim is that we have finite abilities and finite lives and can only do a finite amount of wrong. This is generally true in the physical sense of causing harm, but not necessarily true in the spiritual sense. Our souls are not finite but continue to exist after death. Those who reject God and end up in hell will continue to sin by rejecting God and blaming him for their punishment, and this will continue as long as they have conscious thought (see Wouldn't everyone repent when faced with hell?). It makes sense that people would continue to be punished while they are sinning and refusing to repent.

As for the claim that we have a limited understanding of right and wrong, our degree of understanding is taken into account, as those with less knowledge receive less punishment (see Degrees of punishment).

Finally, there is a sense in which our sin is, if not infinitely wrong, still much more wrong than we realize, in that it is rebellion against an infinitely righteous and deserving God. God is perfectly good and loving and has provided us with all we need; he has even gone to the extent of experiencing our life on Earth (as God the Son, Jesus Christ) and suffering and dying - for our wrongs against him! - so that he can offer us forgiveness and eternal happiness. God deserves our love and obedience to the utmost. When we sin against him, we deny him what is his due, and we spit in the face of the person who has loved us the most.

In the opening chapters of Les Miserables, an ex-convict who has been refused lodging everywhere else is welcomed into the home of a bishop, treated with courtesy and respect, and given a meal, expensive wine and a room to sleep in free of charge. The ex-convict's response to this kindness is to sneak out in the middle of the night with the bishop's silver. To steal from anyone, even from a cruel person, is wrong; yet it is particularly wrong for a thief to steal from someone who has been kind and generous to him. This is the aggravated wrong we are dealing with when we consider our sins against God.

And what is sin against God? First of all, what is sin? Practically everyone agrees that it's wrong to hurt other people (without a justifiable reason such as self-defense). But even if no one is hurt, acting with the intent to harm someone is still wrong. If someone tries to shoot someone else, but the bullet misses the target, they are still prosecuted for attempted murder, despite the fact that no one was physically hurt. Our intents and attitudes matter, because right and wrong matter on a conceptual level. We are breaking a moral law - going against what is moral and just - when we plan to harm someone or wish to harm them, even if we don't carry it out.

God is perfectly moral and has given us an understanding of right and wrong. Whenever we do something wrong, we are disobeying God; and in most cases, we are harming or intending to harm a living person or creature that God has created and loves. God isn't physically or materially injured by our sin, but since he is righteous, he is upset when we do wrong, just as we ourselves are upset when we hear news reports of someone being murdered or an innocent person having been wrongfully imprisoned. Thus God is not exacting revenge on people by punishing them, but punishing the inherent wrongness of their actions - which includes rebelling against God and rejecting his perfect standards of right and wrong.


Further objections and proposed alternatives to hell

Wouldn't everyone repent when faced with hell?
Would God let out people who repented?

One argument against hell is this: No person in his right mind would choose eternal punishment in hell over heaven. Therefore everyone would repent when sent to hell. If God lets the repentant leave, hell will be empty (and therefore can be disregarded). If God doesn't let the repentant leave, God is unjust for continuing to punish them after they've repented.

The trouble with this line of reasoning is that repentance is not simply a matter of one saying, "Okay, I'll say whatever you want me to, just get me out of here!" Repentance involves acknowledging one's guilt, feeling remorse and the desire to change one's behavior, accepting Christ's sacrifice as substitutionary punishment for one's wrongs and agreeing to love and obey God (including Christ as God the Son). This includes by definition acceptance of eternal punishment in hell as just punishment for one's sins; while the skeptic may still object that continued punishment of the repentant is unjust, the repentant will respond that their continued punishment is deserved and could only end through God's mercy.

However, in reality people in hell won't repent. If one thinks God is unjust for punishing people in hell, actually going there isn't going to make one suddenly decide that God is just and deserves one's love and worship after all. People are given their entire lives on Earth as an opportunity to repent and accept God; if they refuse each day of their lives to repent and believe they're justified in doing so, it's hardly conceivable that punishment in hell would change their minds. This is illustrated in Revelation chapter 16, where God punishes the people who are worshiping the beast, yet they repeatedly blame God for punishing them (16:9, 11, 21).

Since hell is comprised of those who would never repent, the second question is only a hypothetical one; it could be argued either way. In reality, everyone is given the opportunity to repent on Earth.

If hell doesn't reform anyone, what good is it? Isn't God simply being sadistic and vengeful?

The purpose of hell is not to reform people; it's punishment for those who will never repent of their wrongdoing. Wrongdoing deserves punishment. Most people would say that it would be unfair for someone who lived a completely good life and was kind and generous to everyone to be punished severely. In the same way, it would be unfair for a cruel, evil person to be rewarded in the afterlife. God would not be just nor righteous if he looked the other way whenever someone was cruel or evil and didn't condemn that action by assigning it the punishment it deserves.

Since God is perfectly just, omniscient and omnipotent, he is able to determine the precise punishment that an individual deserves. While he experiences righteous anger against wrongdoing, he is not prone to the evil desires that cause us humans to overpunish or act sadistically to those who have hurt us.

Why doesn't God save everyone?

If people can't earn heaven but are only saved by God's grace, why doesn't God extend his grace to everyone and admit everyone to heaven?

It's true that we can't earn heaven as a reward for our good behavior. We would have to be perfectly good, which requires not only not doing any wrong, but doing all the good that we can possibly do; thus there's no room for error, and no way to earn "extra credit" to make up for our mistakes. Therefore when people are allowed into heaven, it's an act of God's grace and mercy. Yet we do still have to do one thing before this can happen - we have to choose to accept God's grace, which means choosing to love God and accept him as our Lord. If we refuse to do this, how can we be allowed to live in the direct presence of God? Evil cannot live in the presence of God (Ps 5:4-5). Someone who refused to accept God as their Lord would still be in a state of active rebellion against God. Even with their sins on earth forgiven, they would be committing new ones since they would continue to disobey God and do wrong.

God does love everyone and want everyone to be saved (1 Tim 2:1-4, 2 Pet 3:9). Unfortunately, some people will choose to reject God no matter what. If God forced them into repenting and accepting him, e.g. by taking over their minds, it would no longer be a meaningful choice and therefore not real repentance or acceptance.


Further reading

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