Saturday, April 2, 2011

Eternal Punishment May Not Be Biblical

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...


  1. If there is not any long term punishment than what was the point for Jesus to die on the cross? He was the propitiation for us! God is holy and can not accept sin... We are sinful at our core. Without our acceptance of Jesus' sacrifice (His atonement for the wrath that is to come) we would not have the opportunity to have a relationship with God.
    How much more loved do we feel when someone allows us to NOT get the punishment we deserved? If you take away the punishment then you dimish the love, grace and mercy given.

    You mentioned that there is not support for punishment for the sake of punishment... Soddom and Gamorah; Jericho; the flood; the rich man in Luke 16:22-23 just to name a few.

    Let's talk about justice. Punishment is not used to only correct, but as a payment for the wrong doing against someone. This is what our justice system is based on. If we as humans want justice for the crimes done - how much more does God require justice for the sins we commit against him?? We commit treason and reject His gifts of life, and yet we want him to continue to give us more and more chances to say "im sorry" after we leave this earthly life. That becomes a "sorry I got caught, not because I'm really sorry I hurt you" kind of apology. I dont want that kind of relationship with my husband, so I'm positive God doesn't want that kind of relationship with us. He is a jealous God who wants ALL of our attention, respect, love and devotion.

  2. Hey, Beky!

    Thanks for your comment! Romans 6:23 states "the wages of sin is death." The consequences of sin is death, not eternal punishment, although those could be related in some theologies. Therefore, the purpose of Jesus dying is to save us from death and to give us life.

    The examples you provided of punishment for the sake of punishment I would not interpret as being punishment for the sake of punishment. Most were more for the purification of the world. God was going to purge the world, a community, etc., of sin by removing those people from it. The rich man faced the consequence of sin: death. That is not the equivalent of eternal punishment necessarily.

    Ultimately, your last paragraph is key. The justice that we impose onto the Bible when we develop a theology of penal substitutionary atonement is not necessarily one from the Bible, but from our own sense of human-constructed justice. We desire clear, long-term consequences. Because we base our justice system on this method, we then assume God's justice system works the same way. What if our justice system is broken?

  3. The assumption that you're making, however, is that hell is about punishment. I would say it's potentially more about respecting the free will that you had on earth to choose to live apart from God. Now the torment comes in realizing the full consequence of that and what true separation from God is.

    Just my two cents.

  4. Anonymous,

    You make an excellent point, like CS Lewis' idea of hell being locked from the inside. I think that is a distinct possibility. However, most of the recent discussion is about hell being a form of punishment, and as I said, that construction has some problems.

    Further, the idea of hell being a place of significant torment comes more from the artist works of John Milton and Danté.

    Perhaps hell is a place where we could live forever, but may not be a place of intentional torment; rather it is simply a place of being apart from God. Now, of course, we have to wonder if there can be joy apart from God at all. And several people advocating this position would state that the people inside are not tormented because they apart from God, as they continue to want to be there, actively rejecting God.

    Finally, the idea of eternal life for all people, either in heaven or in hell, is based on the idea that all people are inherently immortal. Several people, including John Stott, whose latest book I just reviewed, stated that people are not immortal creatures, citing the creation story.

    So yes, this post is not necessarily saying that hell does not exist nor that people do not live eternally in all cases. We need to remember where our beliefs come from--not always from the Bible.



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