A question posted to my church discussion board by a fellow member:
Hello …. I’m looking for some reasoned responses or references that I can go to in order to address an inner struggle I am currently undergoing …. I’m wrestling with the issue of “eternal punishment” …. my question is basically: Given the fact that Jesus Christ “paid it all” through his death on the cross, becoming sin and enduring God’s wrath on behalf of all those who will trust in Him, and the fact that after three days he was then resurrected and restored to his rightful position as Lord and King, how do I reconcile with that the idea that a person who does not accept Jesus Christ as Savior must therefore face the consequences of his own sin, but that the consequence for the sin of that one person is an eternal punishment (separation from God) …. how can I resolve the idea that the punishment for the sins of many was satisfied by Jesus Christ over the course of three days (earth time) but the punishment for the sins of just one (without Jesus Christ) is never satisfied and lasts forever ? I realize there may be too many unknowns for this to be answered “easily”, but I wouldappreciate some help with this …. thanks, TWS
This is my answer to this question and some of the discussion trail following it:
It seems the prevailing assumption on this topic is that the suffering of hell is divinely imposed, that God causes the suffering felt. What if the suffering is self-imposed, and, not only that, for those in hell, such suffering is preferable than to be in the presence of a God that those people have hated and rejected?
In Matt. 16:18, as Jesus commissions Peter to lead the New Testament church, He makes an interesting comment that the gates of Hades (Hell) will not prevail against the church. The popular understanding of this verse is that the church will not succumb to the onslaught of Hell, but this is opposite to what Jesus actually says. The gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church, giving the actual imagery that Hell is shut from the inside by its inhabitants, and that the movement of God will overcome its resistance. Indeed, this imagery makes more realistic sense as a city beseiged is shut from the inside, not the other way around.
What might we infer from this? Hell is filled with people who would rather be there over and above spending an eternity with a God they despise. They are unforgiven not because they lapsed in asking for forgiveness but because they have rejected the God who forgives. Paul states that freedom from sin is bondage to the Father, which is precisely what sinful people cannot tolerate. To them, freedom to sin is freedom from God, and so in this sense, hell is exactly what they have desired all along. (My thanks to St. Paul..and C.S. Lewis)
But back to the original question, why the eternality of it all? To say that a sin is finite because it is committed in a finite earthly life assumes that one’s location determines its finitude. It also assumes that sin is confined only to this earthly life. We know this is untrue, since Scripture teaches that all sin has an additional spiritual dimension. Sin is ultimately committed against an eternally existing God, who is timeless. The offense exists as long as God does.
The Law exists to teach God’s moral righteousness. James 2 teaches that breaking one law (the only language quantifying sin we have) is breaking the (whole) Law. God’s moral perfection and character, which are abstract and exist eternally outside this temporal world, are represented in the Law, and are the attributes that we offend when we sin/break the Law. From this perspective, sin is far from being merely temporal, since it offends the eternal character of God.
We can look at Jesus’ death on the cross similarly. In fact, my daughter asked a very relevant question related to this just tonight. How can Jesus’ death be efficacious for us living now if Jesus died in the past? (Not in those exact words, of course) But we do know that it is efficacious for us now and for those who lived prior to Jesus’ life on earth, NOT through the limited time of the actual event of dying on the cross, but through the timeless spiritual significance of Jesus’ death on the cross. Specifically, the Resurrection is what makes it efficacious for lifetimes past, present, and future. Jesus is risen and alive and able to reach across time to forgive and save.
On the flipside, I’d like to know: if it seems somehow unfair that hell should last an eternity, then why should heaven last an eternity? I’ve never known anyone to contest that an existence in the presence of God should only be finite because the time spent on earth believing in Jesus was finite.
BTW, Tim Keller’s chapter his book The Reason for God, is one of the better treatments of God and Hell I’ve seen in a lay-oriented book. Chapter 5. I recommend it.