100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Nature of Eternal Punishment

The Bible teaches us about hell as a place of eternal punishment for sins. But what is the nature of this punishment? Traditionally people have believed that the unsaved; that is, those who have not put their faith in Christ for salvation, will experience some kind of torment, both physical and mental, forever in hell. This is a particularly frightening thought; that there might be some intense pain which will never cease, for an unending period of time. But there are those who, having read the Bible, conclude that this is not, in fact, what the Bible teaches about hell. Annihilationists believe that ultimately the unsaved will be thoroughly annihilated in hell. That when God casts them into hell, their body, soul and spirit will cease to exist altogether. Their “eternal punishment”, therefore, is that they will be denied eternal life and will instead be eternally dead. Today I wanted to discuss this view of hell, and why I think it’s wrong.

Will you just disappear forever?
Annihilationists often argue that their view is more consistent with a God of love and mercy, annihilation being more “humane” of God; and will even go so far as to say that this is more just of God as well. What I find interesting, though, is that annihilation is precisely what atheists expect will happen to them after they die, and they seem fairly content with that. That is to say, no atheist believes in divine justice, and annihilationism is consistent with their view. When I consider what it might be like if annihilationism were true, I feel as though I could live my life however I please, raping and murdering and stealing, because presuming I could avoid the vengeance of my fellow man, I would go to the grave and escape all consequences for my sins. I would effectively “get away with it all.” Even if there were a God, I could have lived as I pleased and be blissfully unaware of what life with God might be like. I don’t think this is compatible with the perfect justice of God.

But what does the Bible say about hell, exactly? Many passages refer to it as a place of fire, and so the annihilationist sees this as an illustration of annihilation... you put something in a fire in order to completely destroy it. Other passages like Matthew 10:28 say that “soul and body” are destroyed in hell. And finally, being cast into hell is described by the Bible as being the “second death”, and since physical death is the destruction of the body, so the second death must be destruction of the soul. And so, of course, the annihilationist rests heavily on these passages. But I think that hell, being a spiritual place, can be a place where a fire (of sorts) inflicts torments (of sorts) on the people who will be there forever. We can consider the burning bush of Moses, or the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who were cast into the fire and did not get burned. They were protected by God from the fire, but we can imagine that God could control the degree to which they might have been burned by the fire, perpetuating it for all eternity. Further, we can understand destruction in the sense of someone saying “drug addiction destroyed my life...” That is, they still have life, but it’s somewhat of a “hell on Earth”, as people are also apt to say. And when the Bible uses the term death in a spiritual context, we can consider a passage such as Ephesians 2:1-2 which reads "And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked". Obviously death in the spiritual sense doesn't entail a lack of consciousness and awareness. The passages of Scripture which annihilationists appeal to may be spun a certain way in their favour, but I don't think their spin holds up in light of the rest of Scripture.

The reason I think that hell is a place of eternal punishment and torment is not just that I think this is more compatible with God’s justice, but because the Bible describes it precisely as a place of eternal punishment and torment. Annihilationists will say that the once and for all punishment of having been annihilated is “eternal” in the sense that those who have eternal life will remember it forever. But I think that’s an unnatural way to read “eternal punishment”, and an even more unnatural way to read of “eternal torment”. Punishment and torment are things experienced by the one receiving the punishment and the torment. To say it lasts forever means that the experience of it must last forever for the one receiving it. Let’s consider the following passage:

and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Revelation 20:10)

It is impossible to read this as saying that the devil’s own torment will somehow be perpetuated after he has been annihilated. How can his torment exist if he doesn’t exist? Now, some annihilationists say that the rules for the devil are different from the rules for people, but there is no justification for that at all. We know that the unsaved go to the very same place (v15 of the same chapter). And the truth is that if the devil is worthy of eternal torment in hell, rebellious people are more so, because they have rejected the sacrifice of God’s own Son.

Now, I don’t think we know perfectly what the eternal torment of hell will actually be like, but I think we can certainly say that there will be conscious individuals present there for all eternity, suffering. Sometimes the appeal is made that “Heaven wouldn’t be heaven if we were constantly upset about our loved ones being in hell”, but then, is it any better that the memory of their annihilation must necessarily live on in our memories, according to the annihilationist view? And then some say “What about the God of mercy?”, emphasizing the mercy of God. But then I would reply that God's mercy is to be found, and it is found in the cross. And we can also cite a passage like Hebrews 10:28-29...

Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God...? (Hebrews 10:28-29)

The traditional view of eternal punishment in hell is, I think, the true one. Hell is a terrible, terrible place, but I can’t apologise for telling you that it’s a reality. Christ came precisely in order to save you from that place, and through Him you can escape it, whoever you may be. God is merciful; that’s why He died for you! God is loving, that’s why He sacrificed His Son. And His love for you is why He, Himself, taught us about how terrible a place hell is. The warning goes out to you now, before it’s too late... See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. (Hebrews 12:25)


  1. Great post. I think it's really weird how people know about hell, how people know about Jesus, the way out, yet they willingly rebel against him and choose hell! It's so messed up, you know?

  2. Just finished reading "The Great Divorce" by C.S. Lewis. A fictional account of a man's dream of Hell. Makes one think about it all a bit differently.