I’ve been asked more than once: Why would God punish non-believers with an eternity in Hell for a finite amount of sin? It seems unfair. Shouldn’t their duration in Hell be commensurate with the amount and severity of their sin?
People who raise this complaint fail to understand the nature of two things: the nature of the offender and the nature of the offended.
The nature of the offender is obvious: Humans are guilty. Not only are they born with a sin nature, they’ve committed crimes against God throughout their lives. That means they deserve to be punished. Every human being on the planet finds himself in this predicament.
God, though, offers every guilty person a pardon. Those who accept God’s offer are absolved of their guilt and go free. Those who reject the pardon pay for the crimes themselves because they remain guilty. Like human prison, God sentences the guilty to a spiritual quarantine (the Bible calls this place Hell).
Their quarantine in Hell lasts forever because they remain guilty forever. While on earth, they had an opportunity to accept the pardon, but that time has passed. They turned down their chance to be absolved of their guilt. Now, they pay for their crimes by being sentenced to an eternal quarantine. After serving a year of their sentence, they’re still guilty. After serving 1,000 years of their sentence, they’re still guilty. Their guilt never fades.
Though the guilt of the offender is relevant, there’s another factor that justifies eternal banishment: The nature of the person offended.
God is the person offended in a human act of sin and/or a lifetime of rebellion. We fail to grasp God’s immense goodness, holiness, and value. He is the greatest being in the universe (and outside the universe). Our inability to understand God’s greatness impedes our ability to understand the reasoning behind the eternality of Hell. Put simply, offending an eternal being earns you an eternal punishment.
Within our human justice system, we often consider the nature of the victim or the person offended. If you kill a rat, for example, you’re not likely to get prosecuted. Indeed, it’s legal to pay people to kill them. That’s because rats aren’t valuable by nature. Kill your neighbor’s Chihuahua, though, and you can be fined because household pets are valued by their owners. If you shoot a bald eagle, you’ll face fines and imprisonment since they’re federally protected. Murder a human being and you might face the death penalty or a lifetime quarantine in prison. That’s a serious punishment because of the nature of humans—they are extremely valuable.
Notice, the more valuable the nature of the being offended, the more severe the punishment. That’s intuitive and just.
Since we live in God’s jurisdiction, we violate His commands when we commit moral crimes. He’s the person offended. The severity of the punishment is commensurate with His nature. Since God is infinitely greater and more valuable than any person, the nature of the punishment is going to be infinitely greater. That’s why an eternal punishment is just. By offending an infinite being, we incur an infinite debt.
Human punishments aren’t that different. In the case of murder, a person is placed in a quarantine for the rest of his life or the duration of his mortal existence. Since a human’s mortal existence extends for the duration of a human lifetime, the prison sentence is for that entire duration. In the case of a crime against a spiritual and eternal being, a person is placed in a quarantine for the duration of their spiritual existence. Since their soul lasts an eternity, their “prison” sentence is for the duration of their soul (which will never die). They’re placed in an eternal quarantine. Hell lasts forever.
We don’t balk at human justice systems that alter the severity of punishment based on the nature of the being offended, so how can we complain when God implements a similar system?
God is just. His reasons for an eternal quarantine are fair. It’s the nature of the offender (perpetual human guilt) and the nature of the offended (the infinite value of God) that justify the eternality of Hell. That may not satisfy our emotions, but it satisfies God’s justice. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that God is not only just, but loving. He doesn’t want anyone to be eternally banished from His presence, but eternally present by His side (2 Peter 3:9). God not only promised this in His word, but He’s demonstrated it by His actions. He’s done everything—including killing His own Son—to keep people out of Hell. God punished Jesus instead of punishing us. It’s a trade that makes God’s pardon possible. That’s not justice; that’s grace.