The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment part 2

2. The Doctrine of Hell Contradicts God’s Character

One common argument used to justify the belief in hell is that it is necessary to establish God’s justice. There is obviously little or no justice in this world. The wicked oppress the righteous, and evil goes unpunished for the most part. We are not to seek revenge for the wrongs done against us but to leave vengeance to God. Thus we look for justice to be established in the next life, for fair payment to be made for the evil done in this world, for compensation to be made to us for the injustice we suffer here. As Colossians 3:25 says “For the wrong-doer will be paid back for the wrong he has done and there is no partiality.”

This reasoning, upon reflection, seems inexplicable to me. First, it seems to be based on the tacit idea that we are not included in the wrong-doers who will be paid back. It is nearly always used in the sense of our looking forward to God paying back those bastards who did us wrong. Sometimes we are bold enough to make it explicit, claiming that as Christians we have already gone through God’s judgment and are now immune, but it still leaves us hanging about how God will pay back those brothers or sisters who have wronged us. We have a continual double standard. We are forgiven with no strings attached, but not the “bad guys”.

To bring the issue into some focus, let’s use Paul’s argument from Romans 8 in the other direction: who is to bring a charge against the damned? Shall any of us? We whose tears have been wiped away, whose griefs have been borne and comforted, whose suffering in this world is not even worth considering once the glory of God is revealed in us, are we really going to spend all eternity settling old scores? May it never be! And will the eternal suffering of the bully who tormented me as a child actually compensate me for the pain I bore? Will I get any joy out of his torment then? May it never be! My pain will have been swallowed up in the joy of heaven and whatever pain could be inflicted on him for eternity will accomplish nothing to either comfort me in my glorified state or to increase my joy. If I do spend even a moment of time delighting in his anguish then heaven will have been infiltrated by hell and Satan will have overthrown it.

And how is an eternity of pain a fair pay back for the finite, temporary pain I may have suffered in this life?  I might have felt, or you might have felt, that the pain we went through does deserve an infinite recompense, but in our hearts we know this is not so.  Some evil is unspeakable, yes, but it is always finite whereas hell itself is also unspeakable but infinite. The very idea of hell violates even the Mosaic demand for getting even, the eye for an eye, the tooth for a tooth.  Eternal suffering is simply neither fair nor just punishment for anything you or I or everyone else has suffered in this world; it cannot be made to add up like that.

Furthermore, the experience of crime victims in this world shows us that such punishment never accomplishes justice.  The victim of a rape or the surviving loved one of a murder victim may feel that justice will finally be done, that closure will finally be achieved, when the rapist is sentenced, or when the sentence is actually carried out and the murderer suffers. But when the execution is over and the pain inflicted on the criminal, there is no closure, there is no feeling that justice has been done. The truth is that the suffering of the criminal does not take away even an instant of the pain of the victim. Nothing that can ever be done to the criminal will ever make up for the damage that he has done. Real justice is a matter of healing, not revenge. Isn’t this one of the reasons why the Scripture spends so much effort in forbidding us to take revenge, because the fact of the matter is that imposing equal pain on the criminal only doubles the amount of pain in the world and does nothing to make anyone’s pain any less? And if it is true on the practical level right now, won’t it also be similarly true in eternity? Isn’t God’s desire for justice better satisfied by wiping away tears and comforting the victim than by torturing the victimizer? Isn’t our own desire for justice better satisfied, isn’t it only satisfied, when we have come to the point where we can forgive the one who hurt us? Don’t we arrive at full healing of our pain only when we come to the point at which we are free of hate and the desire to inflict pain?  As long as we desire hurt another we continue to be the prisoner of our own pain.

So the only one left to bring a charge against the damned is God Himself. They have offended against His majesty, against His glory, against His love and therefore they are deserving (we are told) of an eternal punishment. The actual evil of their deeds is way out of proportion to what it might appear because it is the eternal God they have offended, and this is why evil done in a mere day or month or year must be punished by suffering that never ends. They squeezed an infinite crime into a few moments.

Don’t we all? The crime against God is so great, we are told, that it is worth His while to keep them all awake, conscious and in pain, forever. Make no mistake about it; for you or me or the damned to exist at all requires an act of will on God’s part. If He turns away His attention from anything it collapses back into the nothing it was made from. You and I and anything that exists continue to exist because God is speaking our name. As Paul said in Colossians 1:17,  “…in Him all things hold together”, and in Acts 17:28, “for in Him we live and move and exist”. Hell has no existence and the damned in hell have no existence and no experience of suffering unless Jesus Himself keeps them there, speaking them into existence, not allowing them to simply disappear into the void.

Though none of us would treat even a dog this way, we are told that Jesus will treat the lost in exactly this way, refusing them the mercy that non-existence would be, refusing them any relief from pain. And not only will He keep them in such agony, ignoring all impulses to mere mercy, but He will do so pointlessly, with no end in mind, seeking to accomplish nothing in them except to extend their consciousness of pain and suffering, simply in order to establish “justice”. And not only will He keep them pointlessly suffering, but He will mock them further by making them worship and praise him as they writhe, for we also know that “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth”, Philippians 2:10. This is what we are told to believe regarding Jesus though it is not made plain, and though we do not usually think of the doctrine in vivid terms. Indeed, belief in hell rests on being as vague as possible in our thinking and imagination, and in not trying to understand how it fits with the rest of what we believe.

We are further told that we cannot argue against belief in hell by arguing that it contradicts God’s character. “God is love” can’t be taken to mean that His love swallows up His anger at sin and injustice. We must deal not only with a loving God but also with a holy God, a just God, and a God who hates sin and who will by no means clear the guilty, who cannot abide the presence of sin. God’s character is, by this picture, apparently something like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or like the schizophrenic who sometimes has one personality come out and sometimes the other. For it is true that in my case and in yours, God’s love did swallow up His anger at our sin. Paul is the best example, or counter-example here, for he was by his own estimate the greatest of sinners, yet God’s love for him supplanted His anger even though Paul never sought that love.

We are accustomed to thinking of holiness as primarily a moral quality, a quality that impels God to destroy the sinner, but I think a closer scrutiny of the Scriptures will show that it only includes a moral dimension as one aspect. Holiness, in what seems to me to be the truest Biblical usage, refers to the general distinction between God’s ways and the ways of fallen man, not only in regard to superficial things like gossip or drunkenness, but to the deeper attitudes which lead us to condone evil in the name of righteousness. It was the holiness of God that was confronting the hard-heartedness of the Pharisees; it was the holiness of God that sent Jesus into the world to redeem us; it was the holiness of God that repeatedly kept Him from pouring out His wrath on Israel.

Holiness is a trait that is not in conflict with God’s love; on the contrary God’s love is one aspect of God’s holiness. For example, in Hosea 11:7-9 we read, “My people are bent on turning away from Me, and though they call out to the Most High, He shall not raise them up at all. How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within Me, My compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute My burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim. For I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”  The point of this passage is that it is God’s holiness that prevents Him from acting on His anger, rather than making it necessary for Him to execute His anger. We have made the holiness of God into a trait that is in conflict with His love whereas the two go hand in hand. Holiness may make sin intolerable to God, but it is also simultaneously what hinders Him from treating sin as it deserves.  Holiness is what makes His reaction to sin entirely alien to the normal human reaction. It is man’s response to lash out in anger, but God is holy and therefore He does not respond as a man would. Holiness is the opposite of wrath, not of the opposite of mercy. Holiness does not demand that He blot out sinners; holiness demands that He blot out sin.  Holiness does not demand that He punish sinners; holiness demands that He heal them.

The Bible clearly presents the love of God as the foundational element of His character, and whatever other traits may hold in His character are manifestations of love.  Holiness is not so much a characteristic of God distinct from love as it is a characteristic way of loving. Wrath is not so much a characteristic of God distinct from love as it is a characteristic way of loving. The justice of God is not so much a characteristic of God distinct from love as it is a characteristic way of loving. God is love and everything else flows out of that fact. The Scripture nowhere says “God is wrath”. Wrath simply is not fundamental to His nature as love is.

Or what about “God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all”? But if all things exist in Him, and if there is no darkness in Him, then how can hell exist at all?  For if hell exists, it is certainly a kind of darkness, it is even called “the outer darkness”, and if it exists it must exist in Him since there is no other way to exist. God’s character, God’s nature, excludes the existence of such a thing as hell. Some theologians, in order to justify belief in hell, insist that we cannot argue from “God is love”, that we must also remember that “God is just” and the demand for justice modifies the nature of God’s love. On the contrary, I assert and the Scripture asserts that it is God’s love that modifies the nature of God’s justice. Scripture certainly does teach emphatically that God is just; but it is equally clear from Scripture that we do not even think of justice as God does.

Nor are we to follow that mistaken theology that takes the Law of Moses as the definition of justice.

3. The Doctrine of Hell Is Bad Theology

The concept of hell is interwoven with many other fundamental concepts that will necessarily have to be rethought as well. For example, if we are no longer to believe in hell then what are we to believe about God’s judging the world and the people in it? If we are no longer to believe in hell, what do we mean by salvation? If we are not being saved from eternal damnation, what exactly are we being saved from? If we are no longer to believe in hell, what do we think happens to those who end up refusing to accept Christ? These questions are too inter-related to answer individually one by one. Rather we must deal with them collectively and all at once. It is more like arguing with a mob than a queue.

First, however, there is a question that is logically prior to them all: what is it that we imagined hell accomplishing exactly? It should be an embarrassing question for anyone who has long believed in the traditional view of hell. Obviously, hell accomplishes nothing; it has no point. If hell had a point, then it would necessarily have a point that is attainable, for a point that is unattainable is not really a point at all. But if hell has an attainable point, then eventually it must arrive at that point, it must accomplish what it is there for. But if it accomplishes what it is there for, it is no longer necessary and would end. Hence either hell is a finite condition that accomplishes some presumably good purpose of God and then ends, or else it is never ending and pointless. Why then are we being asked to believe in something that is pointless? Why are we asked to believe that our God is the sort who does pointless things?

It is a question of the sovereignty of God. I am enough of a Calvinist that the sovereignty of God is central to the way I think, to the way I interpret Scripture, to the way I try to relate to God. His purposes do not fail. What He intends He will perform. What He says will come to pass. Just as when He called light into being from nothing and there was no power that could return it to non-being, you and I exist because He has spoken the word, He has called us by name and continues to call us by name. We are His creatures, created by His will for His purpose, and nothing can circumvent that purpose.

This is the quandary of so-called “double predestination”. If one believes in predestination of the elect to eternal life, then it follows immediately that we believe in the predestination of the lost to eternal punishment. Some try to deny the second while maintaining the first, but it is simply no good logically. To choose the elements of a set is simultaneously to choose the elements of the complement of the set. To predestine the elect to everlasting life is simultaneously, indistinguishably, to not predestine the lost. There are those who are convinced of the basic truth of the Calvinist approach to interpreting the Scripture, as am I, but who find double predestination unacceptable, as do I. Romans 9 is the central text in this discussion, and I will return to it later. For the moment I will proceed with my thesis that God does not create beings whose purpose is to suffer eternally.

If God does not predestine creatures to hell, it necessarily follows that hell does not exist. Let me state that more strongly: if God does not create from nothing a creature whose only purpose is to be tortured in hell forever and then choose to maintain the existence of that creature purely for the purpose of its suffering, then hell cannot exist. Could God have such a purpose in the creation of something? Humility should require us to answer, “yes”, but to believe so involves us in an apparent contradiction. Can we maintain logically that God is purely good and purely loving and yet creates in order to torture forever? It is true that our ways are not His ways, that as the heavens are high above the earth so are His thoughts above our thoughts. It is true that we cannot fathom His purposes in what He has made, but the idea of creating something for such torment strains to the breaking point our trust in His goodness. It would appear to make His ways lower than our ways, lower than the sort of moral and ethical people He desires us to be. Only the severest of Calvinists could hold on to such an idea, and that in spite of their hearts.

It is because I was a convinced Calvinist that I was first brought to doubt the doctrine of hell. However, even had I been an Arminian I think I would eventually have reached the same conclusion. Consider the world from an Arminian viewpoint. Your eternal state and mine rests squarely on our free will, our “choosing to accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior”. Mind you, just saying the words without meaning them would be an absurd basis for eternal salvation. We must say them and mean them. But of course, “in a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute may reverse” as T. S. Eliot put it. What we can choose we can un-choose. And in fact all of us do it all the time. What seems good in our eyes today seems horrid the next year. In Arminian circles it is called “backsliding”. For if the entrance to salvation comes by an act of will, it follows that a similar act of will can undo it all. An Arminian must be in constant fear lest he lose his salvation; and I might add that it is not an uncommon occurrence for people to make a public profession of faith, to walk down the aisle, to be baptized as adults, and simply drift away.

I may fail to be fair but this is what an Arminian universe seems to me to be like. God loves each individual equally and infinitely.  Though we are all sinners, the effects of sin have not been utterly devastating. At least there is enough freedom of will left in us that each of us has the power freely to accept or reject the offer of forgiveness in Jesus Christ, and God never infringes on that power we have to choose. And there you have it. In an Arminian universe a person ends up in hell because he has stubbornly refused the love of God through the whole course of his life. Even a last minute repentance on his death bed would be enough to deliver him from hell, but should he die without repenting, either the offer of forgiveness is withdrawn or else his freedom of will has evaporated so that he is no longer able to choose life. In fact, in an Arminian view it is theoretically possible for no one at all to be saved, because salvation depends ultimately and finally on our choices. If we all collectively choose to say “no” to God then He is pretty much at a loss and the divine purpose and eternal plan to save the world is halted. We can all just stand together and, if we choose, foil the work of Calvary and set the blood of Christ at nought. What can He do? Violate our free will? Unthinkable.

Thus, looking at the issue from the viewpoint of power, in an Arminian universe when a person ends up in hell it is because God’s strength of will was insufficient to keep him out. The damned stand against God and they win, though what they win is only the eternal consequences of their choices. Thus it would seem that in an Arminian universe hell is really a punishment for being more persistent than God, for being more stubborn than God, for being stronger than God. In an Arminian universe the very existence of hell is fundamentally a failure on God’s part: He is simply not able to save His creature if that creature refuses to be saved. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that this limitation on God’s power is a self-imposed limitation to maintain the freedom of our wills. He could just slug the determined sinner, knock him unconscious, and carry him off to safety against his will. Though this course of action might commend itself to mere humans trying to rescue from suicide the friend they love, it apparently does not commend itself to an Arminian God. From God’s perspective, according to the staunch Arminian, it is a higher priority to respect the wishes of the fool than to rescue him. If any one of us behaved in this way toward a friend, or even a dog, we would be condemned, but it is considered perfectly right for an infinitely loving God to do so.

And consider the gospel in an Arminian universe. We are offered the forgiveness of our sins if:  if we have the strength of will to turn from our sins and stay turned. There is always the threat of backsliding, for anything depending on our choice can equally well be cancelled by our choice. We must not only choose to accept the love of God, we must never go back on that choice; we must not look back, we must not doubt, we must not fail. This is ultimately the Arminian gospel, to put my and your eternal destiny under my and your control. Me and you, who can’t even stick to a diet longer than a week at a time, are required to follow Christ of our own free will and never fall into sin or else the danger of hell gapes at us. We are told that the Holy Spirit lives in us now and will help us and this is supposed to reassure us. It does, I suppose, if we can keep ourselves from thinking clearly. For all around us are the backsliders, those who grasped the plow and looked back. Was their looking back the fault of the Holy Spirit? Or course not. It was their own fault. So there I am and there you are with ultimately only our own strength of will keeping us out of the fires of hell and we had damned well better not waver. This is the Arminian “good” news in Christ, as far as I can understand it.

Hell cannot be understood logically in any other way than as God failing. The all powerful and righteous God, who is Light and in whom there is no darkness at all, simply could not bring it off and the outer darkness did overcome the shining of the Light after all. For a Calvinist, hell makes the sovereignty of God meaningless; and for an Arminian hell makes the love of God meaningless. Hell cannot be made compatible with any theological position; it is the complete and utter failure of God either in love or power to complete a work that He began.

For this same reason I cannot accept annihilationism, the doctrine that the lost are simply allowed to collapse back into the nothingness they came from. This doctrine at least has the virtue of maintaining God’s character as one of mercy. But ultimately, annihilationism admits the same failure on God’s part. God brought a creature into existence whom He would not or could not redeem, and He had to give up on it. It seems to me that it is the glory of God that is at stake. Hell, were it to exist, would be the opposite of glory to God; it would degrade His name.

The way I approach theology, the basis for arriving at a Calvinist position is the doctrine of Creation. Predestination is tacit in the act of creation. I do not have free will in the most basic sense because I did not create myself. God made me who I am and what I am and I cannot choose to be otherwise. This seems to me to be the main point Paul makes in Romans 9, which derives predestination exactly from God choice in creation. Further, as Paul says, “It is by grace that I am what I am”, and that is equally true of all of us. The act of creation is identical to the act of grace. I am what I am and you are what you are by grace, by the good purpose of God who called me and you into existence and calls us to continue in existence until He has Himself fulfilled His purpose in my creation and in yours. Ultimately, the existence of hell contradicts Genesis 1; for if hell exists it is a created thing and there is no truthful way for God to see it as good.

2 Comments on “The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment part 2”

  1. Leif Says:

    Encouraging thoughts. It’s nice to see there’s someone else out there who REALLY thinks about the ramification of our tacit beliefs.


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