Hell is Fair (First in a series)

First in a series of two.

A finite creature commits a finite number of sins over a finite time period. So why is the punishment an eternity of suffering? Doesn’t it seem “fair” to punish those sins in an appropriately finite span? This question has lead some to embrace annihilationism, the idea that the wicked pass out of existence either at death or after a time of punishment. They miss out on an eternity of God’s glory by being snuffed out. Some believe that this punishment is more appropriate than an eternity of suffering.

It sounds more palatable but it isn’t biblical, it isn’t how Jesus spoke of the fate of the wicked. “And these [the wicked] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41). If eternal in the first part of the sentence is temporary then our salvation is only temporary likewise. That one sentence from Jesus should be enough to put the idea of a temporary punishment to rest.

So we’re left with the question of how it is “fair” that finite sins warrant eternal punishment. After all, didn’t Jesus pay for sins in a finite amount of time upon the cross? I’ve heard it explained in few different ways. The first way is to acknowledge that finite sins were committed but they were committed against an infinite God and therefore warrant infinite punishment. I just don’t understand how God’s infinity affects the amount of punishment is appropriate for a sin. I don’t get the connection. Is, then, a sin against a 6-month-old child less severe than one committed against a 90-year-old man? Or perhaps the inverse is better. The child has more years of “existence” before him than the 90-year-old man does so the sin against the infant is worse. See? This just doesn’t seem to fit.

The other way I’ve heard it explained is that that sin hangs, unforgiven before God for the rest of time. It is like taking an ink pen and making a dot on a graph. The act, the sin is a single dot but now that that pen and move it across the graph in a never-ending line. The weight of that ink now approaches infinity and so it is like with our sin. As it sits unforgiven, the weight of it grows. Again, this is not satisfying to me. I can’t think of a biblical example of a sin becoming worse the longer it remains. Indeed, Paul, in Romans 12:20 cites Proverb 25:22 advising kindness to our enemies “for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Wouldn’t “burning coals” be better heaped by not forgiving the sins our enemy has committed against us if this second model is true?

Here’s what I think of eternal punishment. I believe that the sins we commit in this life which have not been atoned for by Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection will condemn us to hell. “And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.” (Rev. 20:12). That would include the sin of unbelief. But is that it? Is that the end of sin? Now those people who are judged retain the guilt of their sins and add nothing to them? I don’t think so. I think those souls remain in the sin of unbelief even though they know better. I think they hate and blame God for the position they find themselves in. They continue to mount sin upon sin and deserve their condemnation.

Fine, where do I get that? Admittedly, it is a bit of conjecture but it comes from reflecting on a few verses about hell. In Mark 9:48 Jesus describes hell as the place “where their worm doesn’t die and the fire is not quenched.” The context is Jesus command to take radical action to separate oneself from sin, better to suffer loss and enter the kingdom than to go to hell. Those things that cause you to sin are supposed to be removed but for those who go to hell they remain. Enter the kingdom without the sin-causing hand or go to hell with it. Admittedly, that’s kind of thin but it seems more plausible to me than the other answers. Furthermore, though Sheol is probably best understood as simply the place of the dead in the Old Testament, I think some of the ways it is spoken of there may hint at what I’m suggesting. For example, in Psalm 6:5 David asks, “in Sheol who will give you praise?” Is it not a sin to not worship God? Isaiah 38:18 says something similar.

It seems entirely plausible to me that sin continues in hell after death just as worship continues after death in heaven. We know that God is just and righteousness and however He determines the amount of suffering for sins that the unrighteous must endure, we know that it is exactly right and perfectly just. So if the Bible says that punishment is eternal and that God is just, then however it works out, God’s punishment of the wicked is both eternal and just.

Added: A person in hell cannot one “day” stop hating God and confess their sins and be forgiven and thereby leave hell. Their hearts remain unregenerate, God has not changed their heart to incline it towards Him. Furthermore, there is no one there to preach the gospel to them.

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