On the heels of the over-debated topic of hell thanks to Rob Bell and inflammatory comments by The Gospel Coalition, I have been thinking a bit about the emphasis many of us put on punishment and how we see that played out in our theology.
Uber-liberals have been known to profess universal reconciliation, in which all people spend eternity with God in heaven. Uber-conservatives are known to say that is heretical, as all people who do not explicitly profess Christ as Lord and Savior are doomed to eternal conscious torment in hell. The conscious part in conservative theology is important as some faiths say that people will continue to live on, including apart from God, but will essentially be asleep. This view is not accepted by the more conservative branches.
And then there's a variety in between, namely some form of annihilationism. In this perspective, those who do not have a relationship with God (and of course different people argue this is defined differently, but we won't get into that part here) will eventually cease to exist at all. In other words, they are annihilated.
Some annihilationists think this complete death will occur upon earthly death. Others say there will be a time of punishment in hell, followed by annihilation. Then there's the people who think that some people will go through a time of punishment and then be able to be reconciled to God, sort of like purgatory.
When we think of punishment both psychologically and biblically, it is used to correct. It helps people learn and grow or to purify people. There is no support for punishment for the sake of punishment. Revenge is clearly frowned upon frequently.
Even when people made serious errors causing very long situations where they were indebted to others, God created the Jubilee, giving everyone a second chance.
Take this principle about the philosophy of punishment and apply it to the afterlife. Eternal conscious torment with no hope of release has no grounds for purification or for helping people learn and change. Punishment just prior to being annihilated has the same situation. Both of these sound more like torture than punishment. And God is not a God of torture nor would condone torture.
In contrast, punishment post-death with a hope of post-mortem repentance has the element of true punishment--moving toward change. Therefore, this perspective or immediate annihilation actually seem to make the most sense if we consider what the purpose of punishment is...