The Christian doctrine of hell may be summarized as a real place ruled by God where all who are found outside of Christ at death or at his return experience the eternal conscious pain of punishment, banishment and destruction. It is impossible to write such a frank and sober statement without a number of theological and pastoral issues coming to the fore. The aim of this article is to begin to respond to two of the main theological objections.
1. Hell and the justice of God
In Mark 9:42-48, Jesus states that those who do not deal radically with their own sin will be thrown into hell for eternity, “where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (v. 48). A moment’s reflection on what Jesus says here raises the issue of God’s justice: how can sin, committed by a finite creature in time, be punished with infinite consequences for eternity? As Augustine commented on these verses, “Who would not tremble, hearing from divine lips such a repetition and so vigorous a declaration of that punishment?”1
While we may not agree in substance, perhaps we can at least empathize with those who struggle to reconcile how God can damn someone to hell for eternity for sins committed in this lifetime. The Christian response to such an objection is both complex and sensitive. It is complex because there is no one verse that provides a clear explanation as to why God in his infinite wisdom chose to create an eternal hell for sinners; it is sensitive because many of us will have loved ones who departed this world with no certain hope of their position before God.
In addressing the issue of the justice of God, it has been proposed that one or two texts in the New Testament may hint at ongoing sin in hell. Revelation 16:9 describes the response of those who receive God’s “true and just judgements” (v. 7): “they cursed the name of God” and “did not repent or give him glory”. This may at least suggest why hell is eternal punishment.2 However, the argument holds together only by logical deduction, since the text primarily concerns the time before the final judgement.3 Moreover, the issue raises the question of whether sin can continue in hell, since, as some argue, Christ’s death reconciles all things to himself (Col 1:20), which, for them, necessarily entails the cessation of sin.4 It is not that the cosmic reconciliation involves ‘salvation’ per se, but rather ‘pacification’5 where all things are brought into harmony under God’s rule, even unrepentant sinners (cf. Phil 2:10f). For Henri Blocher, for example, hell is empty of sin but full of remorse (cf. Luke 16:19-31).6 This position, however, is not without its weaknesses either: for example, it perhaps fails to provide adequate room for the picture of ‘destruction’ in hell where people deteriorate in some sense.
Space forbids a thorough discussion of this exact issue; suffice to say that the possibility of ‘ongoing sin’ does not appear to be a strong basis for affirming eternal punishment.
Degrees of punishment
There are some texts in the New Testament that suggest degrees of punishment at the future judgement, conveying the idea that the punishments are duly measured according to the crime committed. See, for example, Luke 12:47-48, where Jesus speaks of people being beaten with different degrees of severity. This correlates with Jesus’ claim that the day of judgement will be more bearable for some than for others (Matt 11:20-24). “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48). In other words, those who have been given more knowledge have more responsibility for what they do with that knowledge. The day of judgement and the subsequent experience of that sentence in hell will be more bearable for the Amazonian Indian who has never heard of Jesus than for the son reared in a Christian home, who knew and heard the gospel but trampled the Son of God underfoot.
As difficult as such a truth is, it at least suggests that God’s future punishments are not random, disproportionate or thoughtless; they are measured and appropriate. However, these preliminary thoughts do not bring us any closer to resolving the issue of how a finite sin can result in infinite punishment for an eternity in hell. As with all Christian doctrines, a number of key biblical texts and theological truths need to be held together in order to form a framework in which to understand God’s justice in hell.
a) God’s sovereignty and love
Firstly, besides the fact that the Bible speaks of God as utterly sovereign over all things, deciding the end from the beginning, it also presents him as deeply personal and infinitely loving. The God of the Bible is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6). He stands towards his rebellious world—a world that has given him the finger more than once—and says, “Why will you die? … I have no pleasure in the death of anyone” (Ezek 18:31-32). Incarnate, he felt anguish over Jerusalem’s stubborn rebellion (Luke 13:34).
b) Human responsibility
Secondly, the Bible is clear that human beings are responsible for their own actions and culpable for the consequences. For example, Jesus longed to gather Jerusalem’s children together, but they “would not” (Luke 13:34). “All day long” God holds out his hand of salvation to “a disobedient and contrary people” who refuse to believe in his Messiah (Rom 10:21). The reason for their final, lost estate, then, is not due to any lack of willingness in God, but rather the stubborn rebellion of their own hearts. In other words, in the Bible, when someone is saved, it is all God’s doing; when someone is lost, it is his or her own doing.
c) The greatness of God and the heinousness of sin
Thirdly, Scripture presents us with such a view of God and such a God-centred view of sin that, when held together, suggests that it is not the length of our sin that determines the degree of God’s just punishment, but the height of our sin: “The essential thing is that degrees of blameworthiness come not from how long you offend dignity, but from how high the dignity is that you offend”.7 Admittedly, there is no one biblical text from which we may prove this propositional statement, but then no single text exists to prove the doctrine of the Trinity or Christ’s imputed righteousness. As mentioned above, these doctrines and the truth proposed above are arrived at by holding together a number of biblical texts/truths in tension.
The supremacy of God and the seriousness of sinning against him are seen throughout Scripture. The first commandment makes it plain that God alone is to be worshipped (Exod 20:3). God is described as thrice holy, whose glory fills the whole earth (Isa 6:3); no other attribute of God is emphasized as much in the Bible. Nowhere in Scripture do we read that God is “love, love, love” or “just, just, just”. But in both Old Testament and New Testament, he is described as “holy, holy, holy” (Rev 4:8). God’s holiness is his golden attribute that colours all his other attributes: his love is holy love; his justice is holy justice. God’s holiness—his utter “otherness”—his “godness”—is so real, so intense, that even the cherubim fly before him covering their faces and feet because he is so unapproachable (Isa 6:2), for he dwells in “unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6:16) and his eyes are too pure to look upon evil (Hab 1:13). As fallen human beings, we have more of a chance of coming within an inch of the sun and surviving than we would of coming within a million miles of the light of this holy God and living to tell of it. An 1826 hymn by Thomas Binney captures the truth well:
Eternal Light! eternal Light!
How pure the soul must be
When, placed within Thy searching sight,
It shrinks not, but with calm delight
Can live, and look on Thee! …
O how shall I, whose native sphere
Is dark, whose mind is dim,
Before the Ineffable appear,
And on my naked spirit bear
That uncreated beam?
The intensity of God’s holiness is highlighted in the story of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons (Lev 10:1-3; cf. 2 Sam 6). When they offered ‘unauthorized’ fire to God, they were struck down immediately by fire. Why such extreme punishment for one simple transgression? God’s answer: “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified [seen as holy], and before all the people I will be glorified” (Lev 10:3). In short, God cannot be stroked: “He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion”.8
Is this an aspect of God that we have lost in our modern evangelical churches? Do our Christian gatherings convey the weightiness of this holy God? Until they do, we will not appreciate the justice of God in hell, because in Scripture, when people sin, the issue is the dignity of the God whom they have sinned against. After committing adultery with Bathsheba (cf. 2 Sam 11), David cries out “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Ps 51:4). David had sinned against Bathsheba, her husband Uriah, the child in Bathsheba’s womb, his commander Joab and his nation. But for David, God was the only person he had sinned against. Sin is first and foremost a Godward thing. It is not “negation” (as Augustine proposed) or “nothingness” (as Karl Barth suggested); sin is an act of defiance against a holy God, and to sin against him is to incur the most severe punishment.
In summary, when it comes to punishment for sin, what the Bible seems to be saying is something rather simple, yet profound: a great and glorious God of infinite worth made us, and therefore we owe him great and glorious and infinite worship. If we do not worship him, then the consequences are of infinite magnitude. God is the most infinitely lovely, beautiful, excellent, glorious, majestic, winsome, delightful and wonderful being in the whole universe, and because he is our Creator, we are under infinite obligation to love, obey, honour, glorify and enjoy him forever; it is our chief end, our ultimate telos. But if we choose to turn away from that infinite obligation, then our sin is infinitely heinous and so deserving of infinite punishment. Do we really think that a teenage boy who punches his brother in the face should receive the exact same punishment for punching the queen in the face? When it comes to God, he does not just differ from the queen in degree, but in kind. Surely this is what Jesus presupposes when he correlates sin by finite creatures to an infinite punishment in hell in Mark 9: the severity of the punishment for sin is directly proportional to the importance of the relationship and the height of the dignity of the one we have offended.
d) God’s justice in the gospel
Fourthly, the issue of God’s justice in hell is inseparably tied up with his justice in the gospel. In Romans 3:21-26, Paul states something that is rarely heard in churches today: God’s setting forth Christ as a propitiation—a God-appeasing sacrifice—was first and foremost to vindicate his own reputation. Paul explains the double dilemma that God faced: his seeming negligence for sins committed by Old Testament saints in the past and his justification of sinners in the present both brought God’s justice into question (Rom 3:25a). Throughout the Old Testament, God had reiterated again and again and again his just punishment for sin and his absolute unwillingness to acquit the wicked (Exod 23:7). Yet throughout the Old Testament, believers appear to get off scot-free for their actions. Abraham’s misdemeanours in Egypt and with Hagar go unpunished. David’s affair with Bathsheba is conspicuously covered over—as if his repentance alone was a sufficient payment (Ps 51:16). But was it?
In the New Testament, the problem remains: how can a holy God declare a sinner to be righteous in his sight when the sinner is just that—a sinner? Thus, the issue for Paul (and God) is not how can God forgive a guilty sinner, but rather how can God forgive a guilty sinner and remain just at the same time? That is the dilemma that the cross of Christ answers: in Christ’s death, God punishes the sins of all his people—past, present and future—to prove to the world that he is both just and the justifier of those who believe in Jesus (Rom 3:25-26). In that one death, God accomplishes both the vindication of his own name and the justification of sinners who believe in his name. God’s desire to vindicate himself from any accusation of injustice is of utmost importance to him.
e) Assurance and God’s justice in the gospel
This is all well and good, but what does this have to do with God’s justice in hell? Everything, actually, because further reflection reveals that our personal assurance of salvation on the last day is dependent on God’s justice in the gospel. The joy of sins forgiven and the assurance that we really will be saved on the last day are based on the assumption of the illegitimacy of a double payment for sin. That is the argument of the Apostle Paul in Romans 5:6-10. In verses 9-10, Paul employs a from-the-greater-to-the-lesser argument to demonstrate that Christ’s atoning work on the cross is the basis for the believer’s absolute certainty of escaping God’s final judgement: if we have been justified by Christ’s death in the present, how much more will we be justified in the future, since the payment has already been paid? The argument only holds together on the assumption that God cannot punish sin twice. As Augustus Toplady put it,
If Thou hast my discharge procured,
And freely in my room endured
The whole of wrath divine:
Payment God cannot twice demand,
First at my wounded Surety’s hand,
And then again at mine.9
In sum, if the gospel itself demonstrates God’s commitment to his own justice, then why would we not also affirm God’s justice in hell, since Christ’s death is the payment made to rescue believers from hell? Christ’s wrath-appeasing death and the punishment of hell equate to the same thing. Since God is so just that he will not punish the same sin twice, the issue becomes a case of either-or: either a person is willing to accept Jesus’ just payment for sins, or they choose to justly pay for their sins in hell themselves.10 It is God’s justice in the gospel that should enable us to affirm his justice with hell.
A summary of God’s justice in hell
Hell exists to display God’s good and perfect justice. The question is whether we have a God-centred enough view of God to accept this. John Piper has said that, as evangelicals, “We are willing to be God-centered, it seems, as long as God is man-centered”.11 The point is perceptive, and hell is a good test for just how God-centred we are.
While the points above may not lessen the emotional weight of hell, it may begin to lessen the dilemma for us. “God is perfect. Justice and mercy are not abstractions; they originate in Him. They are adjectives.”12 They are his adjectives. And beyond this truth, we must live by faith. As Henri Blocher comments,
justice and love are one in God, the same fire of holy passion. We cannot yet see that truth. We do not know how to reconcile the perfection of divine mercy, the bliss of the redeemed, and the torment of the lost. But we do not presume to teach our Lord lessons on love. But we do know him. Our disarmed faith knows God, and it suffices.13
Affirming the justice of God in the doctrine of hell is also essential when proclaiming the greatness of God’s love in the gospel, which brings us to the second theological reflection.
2. Hell and the love of God
It is only when we have grasped God’s justice in Christ’s death (Rom 3:21-26) that we can then appreciate fully God’s love displayed in the same death (Rom 5:1-10). For one can only speak of God’s love (his gracious, unmerited favour towards us) if we first understand what he had to give in order to save us: God himself gave himself in order to save us from himself.14 What necessitated this giving was God’s justice—a justice integrally bound up with his own nature: sin must be punished. What motivated this giving was God’s love—a sovereign, free love arising from his own nature, not from any attraction in us. And why did God choose to act in such a way? Because that’s the kind of God he is—a just and loving God.
More specifically, this giving involved Christ enduring on the cross the Father’s unrestrained wrath against sinners. Pains and agonies of hell that would take the world an eternity to endure were poured upon Jesus in one horrific moment.15 This is the love of God, for the God who is angry at us and from whom we deserve an eternal hell is the same God who loved us and sent his Son to endure the whole of wrath divine. What is echoed in hell is not only the justice of God on those who are present, but also the infinite, amazing, love of God lavished on those who are absent. Out of the darkness on the cross, Jesus cried the cry of desolation so that we would never have to cry the cry of desolation in hell. He took our hell so that we could have his heaven. If we take hell out of Christianity, we divest Christ’s death of everything, and destroy the brilliance of God’s amazing love. The ‘dilemma’ of God’s love and the doctrine of hell is not, therefore, “How can a loving God send people to hell?”; instead, it is, “Why would a just God ever rescue rebels from punishment in hell?” The answer is left to mystery—a mystery that should lead to worship, where all proper theological reflection ends:
And can it be that I should gain
an interest in the Savior’s blood!
Died he for me? who caused his pain!
For me? who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?16
1 Augustine, Civitas Dei XXI, ix (1), cited in Henri Blocher, ‘Everlasting Punishment and the Problem of Evil’ in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, edited by Nigel M de S Cameron, Baker, Grand Rapids, 1992, p. 287.
3 As Carson himself admits.
4 For examples of this position, see Henri Blocher, ‘Everlasting Punishment and the Problem of Evil’ in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, pp. 283-312; Andy Saville, ‘Hell Without Sin—A Renewed View of a Disputed Doctrine’, Churchman 119:3, 2005, pp. 243-61; and Paul Helm, The Last Things, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1989, p. 114.
5 So FF Bruce, The Epistle to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1984, p. 76. Cf. PT O’Brien, ‘Col. 1:20 and the Reconciliation of All Things’, RTR, 35, 1974, pp. 45-53.
6 Henri Blocher, ‘Everlasting Punishment and the Problem of Evil’, pp. 304-307.
7 John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! The Sovereignty of God in Missions, Baker, Grand Rapids, 1993, p. 127.
8 CS Lewis, The Lion Witch and the Wardrobe, HarperCollins, London, 2001, p. 197.
9 ‘From Whence This Fear and Unbelief’ (1772).
10 This raises the question “For whom did Christ die?”, which, unfortunately, is a topic for another occasion. Suffice to say that our discussion has at least shown that the issue arises in the first place from texts like Romans 5:9-10 and 8:32-34, and not from ‘logical reasoning’ imposed on biblical texts, as is sometimes alleged.
11 John Piper, God is the Gospel, Crossway, Chicago, 2005, pp. 12-13.
12 ND Wilson, Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, p. 181.
13 Henri Blocher, ‘Everlasting Punishment and the Problem of Evil’, p. 298.
14 John RW Stott, The Message of Romans, The Bible Speaks Today, IVP, Leicester, 1994, p. 115.
15 Donald Macleod, The Work of Christ, IVP, Leicester, 1998, p. 176.
16 I am indebted to Charles De Kiewit, David Gibson and Simon Flinders for their feedback on this article.