Everlasting Punishment

Fear of suffering eternally in Hell should move us (Jud 1:22-23) to seek the Lord earnestly, striving to enter the Way (Lk 13:23-24), until we know we have eternal life. (1Jn 5:13) The infinite cost of failure here makes any other outcome entirely unacceptable to the rational soul.

But is Hell, the second death, actually eternal? What if, as some teach, Hell has an explicit finality to it, where souls don’t suffer forever but are rather extinguished, annihilated, such that they cease to exist? Wouldn’t that be more consistent with a loving God?

Annihilationism is the claim that as the wicked are destroyed (Mt 10:28) they cease to exist, that spiritual death is final and complete, an eradication of body, soul and spirit, producing a state of non-existence. The motive is to frame God as more reasonable and compassionate when eternal torment is not perceived to be justifiable. (Ro 11:33) After all, how could a loving God torture souls eternally? 

To begin, observe that we can destroy something without annihilating it, say, by smashing a computer or a car and rendering it inoperative, incapable of fulfilling its intended purpose, forcing its components into an altered, unusable state.

Similarly, in death (separation of spirit and soul from body) spirit, soul and body continue to exist; none are annihilated. (Lk 16:22) So, verses including death and destroy do not, in themselves, imply Annihilationism.

Further, Annihilationism assumes sin has a finite degree (making infinite punishment unjust) and no benefit in eternal torment (making it unnecessary). But if Man’s unchecked sin is indeed infinite, in both intensity and duration, and if eternal suffering would bring glory to God, prompting worship in the righteous by uniquely revealing the nature of both God and Man, then Annihilationism is problematic. To verify this, let’s search the Scripture.

The Word states, as clearly as anything can be stated, that most souls will suffer consciously for eternity. (Re 14:11) This is not surprising, since we all, when left to ourselves, love darkness rather than light, because our deeds are evil. (Jn 3:19) This is deeply offensive and dishonoring to God. What should He do about it?

Conventional teaching has been that God angrily casts the wicked into a furnace of fire (Mt 13:42), consigning them there forever because they did not believe on Him in earthly life. (Jn 3:36) This punishment seems so harsh that many struggle to understand how this could possibly be consistent with God’s love and mercy, even if we see it in Scripture. Can anyone truly deserve such an end?

How can God impose this kind of fiery punishment for eternity and yet be loving and just? It is impossible to rightly understand these kinds of things without the proper context; as with many other theological problems, the resolution lies in a full comprehension of the nature of Man.

Everlasting, infinite punishment would only be unjust if the wicked were not infinitely so, if their rebellion were finite in either intensity or duration. Yet, Annihiliationism would explicitly hide this reality from us, such that we could never experience the timeless nature of either God or Man. But isn’t this God’s explicit purpose in Creation, to reveal and glorify Himself? (Ro 9:22-23) If so, how then might eternal punishment reveal and glorify God?

When God has suffered the indignity of our sin long enough, suppose all He does is simply unveil Himself (Is 25:7), showing us all Who He is and what He is like, unfiltered, exactly as He is. (Re 20:11) This will distill every place in the universe down to only one: the immediate presence of Almighty God. Infinite depravity will then begin to fully and intimately engage with infinite holiness, justice and love.

This simple unveiling of God changes everything. Whatever is in God and of God is fulfilled and completed (Col 2:10), home at last, while all outside God is incapacitated (Mt 15:13), shaken to the core (He 12:27), unable to function as designed: destroyed.

As this climactic event unfolds, a permanent standoff develops: the wicked remain opposed to God and at enmity with Him (Ro 8:7), while God remains infinitely holy, just and loving. These two natures are entirely irreconcilable; they cannot abide in harmony together, not even a little bit. Each side is absolutely intolerable to the other (Pr 11:20), and they clash with unfathomable violence and intensity. God’s indignant fury fills the wicked with terror (Na 1:6), yet there is no place to hide. The damned begin to suffer the real, ultimate consequence of their rebellion, destroyed by the very glory of the God they despise (2Th 1:9), the inevitable result of their own willful choices and nature.

Since God does not change (Ja 1:17), the only way this stalemate will ever end is if the wicked find it within themselves to repent and turn to God (Je 13:23), otherwise their punishment will indeed be everlasting (Mt 25:46), infinite in both degree and duration, according to their own nature. (Is 33:14)

So, as the wicked stubbornly continue in their unbridled rebellion, drowning in inextinguishable holy fire (Mk 9:43-44), they put their hatred for God on universal display (Ps 21:9), permanently showcasing themselves before God’s throne for the righteous to observe and contemplate. (Is 66:23-24) They are held by the cords of their own sin (Pr 5:22), in perpetual shame and everlasting contempt. (Da 12:2)

In this state, what should God do? Must He annihilate His enemies in order to be loving and just?

What if the holy arms of a loving God remain forever open (Ro 10:21), even to those in Hell (Re 22:17), offering mercy and pardon to any who will repent and turn to Him? (Is 55:7) And what if we begin to observe, in age after incredible age, that the damned will never return to God (Ps 81:15), not a single one (Ps 14:2-3), no matter what immense suffering their own relentless, stubborn blasphemy (Re 16:9) continually draws down upon their own heads? (Pr 27:22) If God ever does do such a thing, and the wicked play their hand as predicted, who could ever rightly complain against Him? (Re_15:4)

And if God did annihilate His enemies, how would we ever know how infinitely evil human nature truly is (Je 17:9), when God gives us up to fully pursue our own way?

Perhaps it is only then, as we actually experience eternity itself, that we will be enabled to fathom more and more the infinitude of our God (Ps 145:3), to glory in His infinite mercy (Ps 103:11), to experience the true nature of unregenerate Man (Ro 8:7), and agree that it’s inexcusable. (Ro 1:20) Perhaps this will enable us to begin to perceive the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through His Son (Ep 2:7), as we explore the unsearchable riches of Christ. (Ep 3:8)

The eternal, infinite, willful, voluntarily self-imposed suffering of the damned will be a continual, tangible reminder of what we all are like without God, and what we all deserve. There will be no self-glory in His presence. (1Co 1:29) We will never forget what our Father has done for us. (1Jn 3:1)

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The Books

God has a library: He’s having it all written down, everything we do and say. (Re 20:12) Every idle word we speak, all our feelings, motives and thoughts, things we aren’t even aware we’re doing … it will all be publicly scrutinized. All is recorded here, in the books; nothing is forgotten, and we’ll answer for all we’ve done. (Mt 12:36)

This must be an immense work, The Encyclopedia of Humanity, precisely documenting every nuance of every act of every person who has ever lived. As our minds capture everything we experience, making the more significant events available to us for our inspection and reflection, these volumes perfectly preserve all the same data, but make it all available for everyone to peruse. (Mk 4:22) Nothing will be hidden (Mt 10:26); secrecy is an illusion, a temporary one. We’ll all be participating in judging each other, thoroughly apprised of all the facts. (Lk_11:31)

Yet there’s another book, The Book of Life (Php 4:3), or The Book of the Living, listing those who are righteous before God. (Ps 69:28) Some names are engraved into this book before Creation (Re 17:8), others are evidently penciled in afterward, only to be finally blotted out (Ps 69:28) due to their ungodly lives. (Ps 69:26)

We should all rejoice, at least for now, that our names appear in the Book of Life (Lk 10:20), the precious token given to every one of us that there’s a place set aside for us in God: God is graciously willing to receive any soul that turns to Him in faith. (2Pe 3:9) Those who do so, who seek Him until they find Him (Is 55:6-7), the elect chosen from eternity past (Ep 1:4-5), are counted righteous (Ro 4:3), and will never be blotted out of the Book of Life. (Re 3:5)

The only way to survive this searching, exhaustive, judgement, to avoid an eternally fiery end, is to be found written in The Book of Life. (Re 20:15) Only those written in the Lamb’s Book survive; everyone else is corrupt, polluted, unworthy to enter Paradise. (Re 21:27)

Let’s be diligent to make our calling and election sure. (2Pe 1:10) It isn’t so much what we know, as it is Who we know. To have eternal life is to know Him (Jn 17:3), to be known by Him (Mt 25:12) and transformed by Him (Ep 2:10), inscribed indelibly into God’s Book of Life.

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Few Find It

Christian Universalism is the teaching that all people will eventually be saved and enter Heaven. It sounds nice, the typical fairy tale happy ending to eternity, but is it true?

All people certainly would be saved if everyone earnestly sought salvation from God (1Ti 2:3-4), but even though all are invited to do so (Re 22:17), very few are willing to come, and none on their own initiative, apart from the drawing of God. (Jn 6:44)

Christ tells us to strive to enter Heaven, that many will seek to enter their own way but won’t be able to (Lk 13:24), that the way to Heaven is narrow, obscure, hidden, and that very few will find it. (Mt 7:14)

Further, Christ teaches that there are certain types and degrees of sin that are never forgiven, neither in this world, nor in the world to come. (Mt 12:32)

Since God is eternally merciful to those who repent and yield to Him (Is 55:7), it would appear that the problem with universalism isn’t that God is unloving or holds grudges, but that Man refuses to repent, even from the flames of Hell. If God waited for men to repent on their own accord, He’d wait forever. (Ps 81:15)

Man is incapable of transforming himself (Je 13:23), and no amount of external punishment or torment will make any difference in the end. (Pr 27:22) The only hope any of us have is the irresistible grace of God; God is able to work in the human heart according to His will (Php 2:13), moving in us to seek Him and obey Him.

It is perhaps a mystery why God does not choose us all; one must look to God’s purpose in Creation to find the answer. (Ro 9:22-23) Evidently, God will be the most glorified in the way He chooses (Ps 46:10), and this is enough for me.

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The Second Death

EtnaEruption
Mt. Etna, Sicily

Yeshua uses unmistakably graphic language to describe Hell. (Mk 9:43-44, 45-46, 47-48) He’s warning us to do all we can to avoid it. Who among us will go there? (Is 33:14) What would it be like do die the second death?

Before coming to faith I dwelt here, meditating on the terror of the Lord; it moved me to repent and seek God until I found salvation. This is, in fact, God’s norm in evangelism. (Jud 1:22-23)

The Lake of Fire is the dreadful fate of all who fail to find their eternal home in Christ. (Re 21:8) Fear of spending eternity in Hell drives the wise to ensure their election, until they’re as sure of Heaven as Christ Himself. Take no chances: perfect assurance of eternal salvation is available; nothing less is acceptable.

Only a few diligently secure their place in Heaven; whatever it takes, strive to enter: be one of them. (Mt 7:13)

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