I was interviewed recently on a large Los Angeles radio station about the existence of Hell. One caller objected to the duration of punishment in Hell. From his perspective, the idea our temporal, finite sin on earth warrants an eternal punishment of infinite torment in Hell was troubling, at the very least. The punishment does not seem to fit the crime; in fact, the disproportionate penalty makes God seem petty and vindictive, doesn’t it? Why would God torture infinitely those who have only sinned finitely? I think it’s important to define the nature of Hell and sin before our discussion of the eternal nature of punishment can have any meaning or significance. Objections related to the eternal nature of Hell result from a misunderstanding of four principles and terms:
We Fail to Understand the Meaning of Spiritual “Torment”
The Bible says those who are delivered into Hell will be tormented, and the degree to which they will suffer is described in dramatic, illustrative language. But, the scripture never describes Hell as a place where God or His angels are actively “torturing” the souls of the rebellious. “Torture” is the sadistic activity that is often perpetrated for the mere joy of it. “Torment” results from a choice on the part of the person who finds himself (or herself) suffering the consequences. One can be in constant torment over a decision made in the past, without being actively tortured by anyone.
We Fail to Understand the Insignificance of Sin’s “Duration”
If someone embezzles $5.00 a week from their employer’s cash register they will have stolen $260.00 over the course of a year. If they’re caught at the end of this time, they would still only be guilty of a misdemeanor in the State of California (based on the total amount of loss). Although the crime took a year to commit, the perpetrator wouldn’t spend much (if any) time in jail. On the other hand, a murder can take place in the blink of an eye and the resulting punishment will be life in prison (or perhaps the death penalty). The duration of the crime clearly has little or nothing to do with the duration of the penalty.
We Fail to Understand the Magnitude of God’s “Authority”
If your sister catches you lying about your income last year, you might lose her respect. If the IRS catches you lying about your income last year, the resulting punishment will be far more painful. What’s the difference here? It certainly isn’t the crime. Instead, we recognize the more authoritative the source of the code, rule or law, the greater the punishment for those who are in violation. If God is the Highest Authority, we should expect that violations of His “laws” would result in significant punishment(s).
We Fail to Understand the Depth of Our “Sin”
Finally, it’s important to remember the nature of the crime that eventually leads one to Hell. It’s not the fact you kicked your dog in 1992. It’s not the fact you had evil thoughts about your teacher in 1983. The crime that earns us a place in Hell is our rejection of the true, living, eternal God. The rejection of God’s forgiveness is not finite. People who reject Jesus have rejected Him completely. They have rejected Him as an ultimate, final mortal decision. God has the right (and obligation) to judge them with an appropriate punishment. To argue that God’s punishment does not fit our crime is to underestimate our crime.
The Bible describes Hell as a place where those who have rejected God will suffer the torment of their decision. It’s an appropriate punishment given the magnitude of God’s ultimate authority and the mortal opportunities for each of us to choose otherwise in this life.
Is Hell Eternal?
The Greek phrase aionas ton aionon, which is translated "forever and ever," occurs 18 times in the Greek New Testament. In 17 of them, the phrase means without end, extending into infinity. In Rev. 19:3, the phrase is used to describe the destruction of the great whore of Babylon (Rev. 17:1,4) whose smoke ascends forever and ever. It too is eternal, and it signifies the beginning of the eternal judgment that comes upon her.
"And if your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the eternal fire," (Matt. 18:8 )
"And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power," (2 Thess. 1:9).
"Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example, in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire" (Jude 7).
These men are those who are hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn trees without fruit, doubly dead, uprooted; 13 wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam; wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever," (Jude12-13).
Also worth examining is Rev. 14:11, "And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name."