Is Eternal Punishment Just?

Author Tim Barnett Published on 12/15/2015

After a recent keynote address at an ACSI teacher’s convention, a young middle school teacher challenged me on something I had said. In my talk on the problem of evil, I made an off-the-cuff remark about Hell being a place of eternal, conscious punishment. This young Christian schoolteacher took issue with the idea that a loving God would send a person to Hell for eternity for a finite number of sins committed while on earth. “It just doesn’t seem right,” she exclaimed.

This is a question that the former Mars Hill pastor, Rob Bell, brings up in his book Love Wins. Bell asks, “Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth?” At first blush, this question seems to resonate with our moral intuitions concerning justice and fairness. However, at the heart of the question lies a fundamental misunderstanding about man and God. Specifically, we minimize the seriousness of man’s sin and guilt, and we distort the perfection of God’s holiness and justice.

First, we minimize our sin. We all do it. It’s part of our fallen nature. I remember the first time I read the account of the death of Lot’s wife. Do you remember what happened to Lot’s wife? God turned her into a pillar of salt as she was leaving Sodom. Do you remember her crime? Nothing more than a backward glance (Gen. 19:26). Reading that story might provoke many to ask the question, “Was that really an offense worthy of death?”

This was not an isolated event. As you explore the Bible, other accounts of God’s judgment appear equally severe. Nadab and Abihu deviated from the priestly procedures, so God consumed them with fire (Lev. 10:1–2); one man gathered wood on the Sabbath, so God commanded Moses to stone him (Num. 15:35); Achan took a few forbidden items from the spoils of Jericho, so God commanded Joshua to stone him along with his entire family (Josh. 7:24–25); Uzzah kept the ark of God from falling into the mud by reaching out his hand and taking hold of it, so God immediately struck him dead (2 Sam. 6:6–7); Ananias and Sapphira lied to the apostles, so God killed them both in front of the entire church (Acts 5:1–10). We have a tendency to think that God was overreacting in these situations. However, this only serves to illustrate our fallenness. We do not see our sin the way God sees our sin.

One of the most basic tenets of justice is that the punishment should fit the crime. So, if the ultimate punishment for those who die without Christ is eternity in Hell, then what is the crime? What do men do to merit the eternal sentence of Hell? The answer is sin.

Many inside and outside the church treat sin as no big deal. However, the Bible describes our sin as “rebellion,” “ungodliness,” “lawlessness,” “wickedness,” and an “abomination” (Lev. 26:27; Is. 32:6; 1 Jn. 3:4; Ezek. 18:27; Pr. 15:9). Therefore, sinners are traitors, refusing to love, thank, serve, and obey the God who gave them life, breath, and every good thing.

I find it ironic that those who protest the idea of eternal, conscious punishment deride the doctrine with words like, “cruel,” “morally revolting,” “monstrous,” and “repugnant.” Why don’t they employ the same terms of outrage to describe their sin? The answer is clear. They are not outraged by sin because they fail to see sin as God sees sin. If we cannot see our sin as God sees it, then it stands to reason that we will not see the just judgment of Hell like He sees it either.

Second, we distort God’s holiness. Not only do we refuse to come to grips with the enormity of human sin, but we also misunderstand the holiness of the God being sinned against. It hardly seems fair for God to inflict infinite suffering for a finite number of sins committed and accumulated over a few short years. That is, of course, until one considers the infinite Being that is sinned against.

The idea of viewing the severity of punishment in terms of the person offended against is common sense. When I explain this to students, I get them to imagine the consequences of punching their friend in the face. Their friend might punch them back, or stop being their friend, or even report them to the police. If they were to punch their teacher, they would be suspended, or even expelled from the school. If they strike a policeman, the punishment escalates even further. They will probably end up in a jail cell. Finally, if they attempt to punch the President of the United States, they are going to prison for a long time. Notice the crime was the same in each case; however, the punishment escalated based on the one the crime was committed against.

Clearly, we live by an established principle: the seriousness of a crime is measured not only by its inherent nature, but also by the one offended against. When we sin, who is the One being offended against? He is the Highest Authority, the blazingly holy God.

In our human courts, we judge crimes against animals as more heinous than crimes against plants. We judge crimes against humans as more heinous than crimes against animals. How much more should we judge the crimes against a Being of infinite goodness and holiness? Crimes against an infinite Being deserve an infinite punishment. Therefore, eternity in Hell is a punishment that both accounts for the inherent nature of the crime and the One whom the crime is committed against.

The biblical doctrine of an eternal Hell gives us yet another reason to praise God for the Gospel. Think about it. It took an eternal Person to satisfy the eternal penalty of sins committed against an eternal God. This disqualifies the entire human race, except one Person—Jesus Christ. He is the Son of man and the eternal Son of God. When Jesus laid down His life, His sacrifice satisfied every requirement of divine justice. For those who trust in Jesus Christ as their Substitute, His death has satisfied the eternal wrath of God.

Unfortunately, those who do not put their faith in Christ are left to bear the punishment of their offenses. Consequently, they will spend eternity in Hell, never able to satisfy God’s eternal wrath.

I hope the doctrine of eternal punishment sobers you. My prayer is that this doctrine will fill you with awe that God sacrificed His own Son to save you from eternal punishment. I hope that it will ignite in you a passion to proclaim the Gospel to those poor souls who are unaware of the terror that awaits them outside the mercy of God.