Heaven or Hell
Man’s Free Will Chooses
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt. 25:46)
This article is in response to a question on Christianity 101. Does hell exist, and if it does, why does a God of love send people to an eternal hell? Although this article will not be an exhaustive piece on the subject, it will demonstrate hell as a future reality, and reveal why God’s justice demands eternal punishment. Also, we must never forget that God gave man a free will to choose his or her walk in life. God does not send people to hell. To the contrary, each man chooses his own afterlife destiny.
As I approached this subject of eternal punishment, my goal was simplicity … try to make an emotional topic, such as hell, understandable to the finite mind, and at the same time, attempt to bring some clarity to why God demands it. In other words, why does a God of love allow such a thing as eternal damnation? I pray this information stimulates the senses and causes a profound appreciation for God’s wisdom in the matter. That said, I open with some insight from Dr. Norman L. Geisler, Dean and Professor of Theology and Apologetics:
“To punish a person eternally for what he did for a short time on earth seems at first like a gigantic case of overkill. However, on closer examination it turns out to be not only just but necessary. For one thing, only eternal punishment will suffice for sins against the eternal God. The sins may have been committed in time, but they were against the Eternal One. Furthermore, no sin can be tolerated as long as God exists, and he is eternal. Hence, punishment for sin must also be eternal.
What is more, the only alternative to eternal punishment is worse, namely, to rob human beings of freedom and dignity by forcing them into heaven against their free choice. That would be “hell” since they do not fit in a place where everyone is loving and praising the Person they want most to avoid. Or, God’s other choice is to annihilate his own image within his creatures. But this would be an attack of God on himself.
Further, without eternal separation there could be no heaven. Evil is contagious (1 Cor. 5:6) and must be quarantined. Like a deadly plague, if it is not contained it will continue to contaminate and corrupt. If God did not eventually separate the tares from the wheat, the tares would choke out the wheat. The only way to preserve an eternal place of good is to eternally separate all evil from it. The only way to have an eternal heaven is to have an eternal hell.
Finally, if Christ’s temporal punishment is sufficient for our sins eternally, then there is no reason why eternal suffering cannot be appropriate for our temporal sins. It is not the duration of the action but the object that is important. Christ satisfied the eternal God by his temporal suffering, and unbelievers have offended the eternal God by their temporal sins. Hence, Christ’s temporal suffering for sins satisfies God eternally (1John 2:1), and our temporal sins offended God eternally.
To the objection that there is no redemptive value in the damning of souls to hell, it can be pointed out that hell satisfies God’s justice and glorifies it by showing how great and fearful a standard it is. ‘The vindictive justice of God will appear strict, exact, awful, and terrible, and therefore glorious’ (Edwards, 2.87). The more horrible and fearful the judgment, the brighter the sheen on the sword of God’s justice. Awful punishment fits the nature of an awe-inspiring God. By a majestic display of wrath, God gets back the majesty he has been refused. Those who give God no glory by choice during this life will be forced to give him glory in the afterlife.”
(Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics by Norman L. Geisler, pp. 313-314)
Those who have accepted Jesus Christ and their Lord and Savior have nothing at all to fear. God sent His Son to earth to save, not judge. “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him.” John 3:17.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” John 5:24.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1.
The Lord wants people to repent and save themselves from eternal punishment. All man has to do is repent of their sins and accept Jesus Christ.
“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” Acts 17:30, 31.
The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” 2 Peter 3:9.
If man chooses to reject God’s gift of grace, thereby failing to repent of their sins, God will bring them into judgment as indicated in Hebrews: “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” Hebrews 9:27.
“And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28.
The fact that there will be a final judgment assures us that ultimately God’s universe is fair, for God is in control, and he keeps accurate records and renders just judgment. When Paul tells slaves to be submissive to their masters, he reassures them, “For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality” (Col. 3:25). When the picture of a final judgment mentions the fact that “books were opened” (Rev. 20:12), it reminds us (whether the books are literal or symbolic) that a permanent and accurate record of all our deeds has been kept by God, and ultimately all accounts will be settled and all will be made right.
The decisions made by people in this life will affect their destiny for all eternity, and it is right that our hearts and mouths echo the sentiment of the appeal of God through Ezekiel, “Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11) “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9)
It is appropriate to discuss the doctrine of hell in connection with the doctrine of final judgment. Hell may be defined as a place of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked. Scripture teaches in several passages that there is such a place. At the end of the parable of the talents, the master says, “And cast out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt. 25:30) This is one among several indications that there will be consciousness of punishment after the final judgment. Similarly, at the judgment, Jesus will say to some, “Then He will also say to those on His left, Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which as been prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matt. 25:41), and Jesus says that those thus condemned, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt. 25:46). In this text, the parallel between “eternal life” and “eternal punishment” indicates that both states will be without end.
Hell Is Very Real
Jesus refers to hell as, “WHERE THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED” (Mark 9:48). The story of the rich man and Lazarus also indicates a horrible consciousness of punishment: “Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And he cried out and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.” Luke 16: 22-24.
He then begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house, “for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment” Luke 16:28.
When we turn to Revelation, the descriptions of this eternal punishment are also very explicit: “And another angel, a third one, followed then saying with a loud voice, ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or upon his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 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.” Rev. 14:9-11.
This passage very clearly affirms the idea of eternal conscious punishment of unbelievers. With respect to the judgment on the wicked city of Babylon, a large multitude in heaven cries, “And a second time they said, ‘Hallelujah! HER SMOKE RISES UP FOREVER AND EVER.’” Rev. 19:3.
After the final rebellion of Satan is crushed, we read: “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” (Rev. 20:10) This passage is also significant in connection with Matthew 25:41, in which unbelievers are sent “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” These verses should make us realize the immensity of the evil that is found in sin and rebellion against God, and the magnitude of the holiness and the justice of God that calls forth this kind of punishment.
Book of Life And Book of Judgment
“And I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Revelation 20:11-15.
This judgment of unbelievers will include degrees of punishment, for we read that the dead were judged “by what they had done” (Rev. 20:12,13), and this judgment according to what people had done must therefore involve an evaluation of the works that people have done.
When Jesus says to the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida, “It shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you” (Matt. 11:22; compare v. 24), or when he says that the scribes “will receive the greater condemnation” (Luke 20:47), he implies that there will be degrees of punishment on the last day.
In fact, every wrong deed done will be remembered and taken account of in the punishment that is meted out on that day, because “on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter” (Matt. 12:36). Every word spoken, every deed done will be brought to light and receive judgment; “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl. 12:14).
God’s Justice Demands Eternal Punishment
Scripture clearly affirms that God will be entirely just in his judgment and no one will be able to complain against him on that day. God is the one who “judges each one impartially according to his deeds” (1 Peter 1:17), and “God shows no partiality” (Rom. 2:11). For this reason, on the last day “every mouth” will be stopped, and the whole world will be “held accountable to God” (Rom. 3:19), with no one being able to complain that God has treated him or her unfairly. In fact, one of the great blessings of the final judgment will be that saints and angels will see demonstrated in millions of lives the pure justice of God, and this will be a source of praise to him for all eternity. At the time of the judgment on Babylon, there will be great praise in heaven, for John says, “After these things I heard, as it were, a loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, ‘Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God; BECAUSE HIS JUDGMENTS ARE TRUE AND RIGHTEOUS; for He has judged the great harlot who was corrupting the earth with her immorality, and He HAS AVENGED THE BLOOD OF HIS BOND-SERVANTS ON HER.’” (Rev. 19:1-2)
The argument that eternal punishment is unfair (because there is a disproportion between temporary sin and eternal punishment) wrongly assumes that we know the extent of the evil done when sinners rebel against God. David Kingdon observes that “sin against the Creator is heinous to a degree utterly beyond our sin-warped imaginations’ [ability] to conceive of … Who would have the temerity to suggest to God what the punishment … should be? (David Kingdon, Annihilationism: Gain or Loss? March, 1992; unpublished paper obtained from the author, p.9.) He also responds to this objection by suggesting that unbelievers in hell may go on sinning and receiving punishment for their sin, but never repenting, and notes that Revelation 22:11 points in this direction: “Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and let the one who is filthy, still be filthy; and let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and let the one who is holy, still keep himself holy.”
If there was no punishment of unbelievers at all, even people like Hitler and Stalin would have nothing coming to them, and there would be no ultimate justice in the universe. Then people would have great incentive to be as wicked as possible in this life. Yet after all this has been said, we have to admit that the ultimate resolution of the depths of this question lies far beyond our ability to understand.
Descriptions of Hell
“The Bible describes the reality of hell in forceful figures of speech. It is said to be a place of darkness (Matt. 8:12; 22:13), which is “outside” [the gate of the heavenly city], (Rev. 22:14-15). Hell is away from the “presence of the Lord” (Matt. 25:41; 2 Thess. 1:7-9).
The Nature of hell is a horrifying reality. It is like being left outside in the dark forever (Matt. 8:12). It is like a wandering star (Jude 13), a waterless cloud (Jude 12), a perpetually burning dump (Mark 9:43-48), a bottomless pit (Rev. 20:1,3), a prison (1 Peter 3:19), and a place of anguish and regret (Luke 16:28).
To borrow the title of the book by Lewis, hell is the “great divorce” – an eternal separation from God (2 Thess. 1:7-9). There is, in biblical language, “a great gulf fixed” between hell and heaven (Luke 16:26) so that no one can pass from one side to the other.
Nowhere does the Bible describe it as a “torture chamber” where people are forced against their will to be tortured. This is a caricature created by unbelievers to justify their reaction that the God who sends people to hell is cruel. This does not mean that hell is not a place of torment. Jesus said it was (Luke 16:24). But, unlike torture which is inflicted from without against one’s will, torment is self inflicted.
Hell is also depicted as a place of eternal fire. This fire is real but not necessarily physical (as we know it), because people will have imperishable physical bodies (John 5:28-29; Rev. 20:13-15), so normal fire would not affect them. Further, the figures of speech that describe hell are contradictory, if taken in a physical sense. It has flames, yet is outer darkness. It is a dump (with a bottom), yet a bottomless pit. While everything in the Bible is literally true, not everything is true literally.” Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 312)
How Long Does Hell Last?
Normal Geisler also states in his book:
“The Bible declares that God will endure forever, ‘Lord Thou hast been our dwelling place in all generation. Before the mountains were born, Or Thou didst give birth to the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God.’ (Psalm 90:1,2). But God by his very nature, cannot tolerate evil (Isaiah 6: Hab. 1:13). Hence, evil persons must be separated from God forever. As long as God is God and evil is evil, the latter must be separated from the former.
Heaven is described as ‘everlasting’ in the Bible. But the same Greek word (aionion), used in the same context, also affirmed that hell is ‘everlasting,’ ‘Then He will also say to those on His left, Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ (Matt. 25:41, 46) (See 2 Thess. 1:9; Rev. 20:10) So, if heaven is forever, so is hell. There is absolutely no ground in Scripture for supposing that hell is temporal and heaven is eternal.”
What are we to think of this doctrine? It is hard – and it should be hard – for us to think of this doctrine today. If our hearts are never moved with deep sorrow when we contemplate this doctrine, then there is a serious deficiency in our spiritual and emotional sensibilities. When Paul thinks of the lostness of his kinsmen the Jews, he says, “that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart.” (Rom. 9:2) This is consistent with what God tells us of his own sorrow at the death of the wicked: “Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11)
The reason it is hard for us to think of the doctrine of hell is because God has put in our hearts a portion of his own love for people created in his image, even his love for sinners who rebel against him. As long as we are in this life, and as long as we see and think about others who need to hear the gospel and trust Christ for salvation, it should cause us great distress and agony of spirit to think about eternal punishment. Yet we must also realize that whatever God in his wisdom has ordained and taught in Scripture is right. Therefore we must be careful that we do not hate this doctrine or rebel against it, but rather we should seek, insofar as we are able, to come to the point where we acknowledge that eternal punishment is good and right, because in God there is no unrighteousness at all.
It may help us to realize that if God were not to execute eternal punishment, then, apparently, his justice would not be satisfied and his glory would not be furthered in the way he deems wise. And it will perhaps also help us to realize that from the perspective of the world to come there is a much greater recognition of the necessity and rightness of eternal punishment. Martyred believers in heaven are heard by John to cry out, “and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10) Moreover, at the final destruction of Babylon, the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven cries out with praise to God for the rightness of his judgment as they finally see the heinous nature of evil for what is really is: “After these things I heard, as it were, a loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God; BECAUSE HIS JUDGMENTS ARE TRUE AND RIGHTEOUS; for He has judged the great harlot who was corrupting the earth with her immorality, and He HAS AVENGED THE BLOOD OF HIS BOND-SERVANTS ON HER. And a second time they said, Hallelujah! HER SMOKE RISES UP FOREVER AND EVER.” (REV. 19:1-3)
In this present age, however, we should only approach such a celebration of the justice of God in the punishment of evil when we meditate on the eternal punishment given to Satan and his demons. When we think of them, we do not instinctively love them though they too were created by God. But now they are fully devoted to evil and beyond the potential of redemption. So we cannot long for their salvation as we long for the redemption of all humanity. We must believe that eternal punishment is true and just, yet we should also long that even those people who most severely persecute the church should come to faith in Christ and thus escape eternal condemnation.
NOTE: If not otherwise quoted, you may find all the above material in the book: Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem. Wayne Grudem is research professor of Bible and Theology at Phoenix Seminary in Phoenix, Arizona. He holds degrees from Harvard (BA), Westminster Seminary (MDiv), and Cambridge (PhD).
God’s Love and Grace Offers Man Eternal Life …
God’s Sovereignty and Justice Demands Eternal Punishment!
Man’s Free Will Chooses