Considering the theological case for eternal conscious torment

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This is the eighth post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

We’ve looked at the background for beliefs regarding hell, and at what can be drawn directly from the explicit wording of Scripture. We’ve seen that the biblical case for eternal conscious torment is much weaker than most of us would have thought, and the biblical case for universal reconciliation and restoration is much stronger than we previously thought. But there’s still more to explore. 

As Christians, we hold to important beliefs that aren’t all spelled out clearly in the explicit wording of Scripture. Our belief in a triune God, for instance, is certainly based on what we learn of God in the Scriptures—what the Bible tells about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, etc. But we can’t point to any passage giving us a detailed explanation of the Trinity. Instead, we draw what we know from studying the various passages that speak to the nature of God, and think carefully about how these passages all fit together. We’re seeking to ultimately arrive at theological conclusions regarding the nature of God that are appropriately built on, and very much in harmony with, the comprehensive teaching of the Bible. Even when Scripture gives us more explicit detail concerning a particular teaching, we still strive to think deeply about what these details mean in their biblical context and how they fit into the larger story of the Bible and the plan of God.

This is what I mean by the “theological case” for these differing views concerning the nature of hell. We didn’t find a very convincing exegetical case for this view in the explicit wording of Scripture, but are there broader theological, “big picture,” reasons why eternal conscious torment is true or even necessary? We’re going to consider and examine the most common theological arguments presented for this view. Everyone who believes in eternal conscious torment may not accept every one of these arguments—and some of these ideas will overlap to some extent—but we’re going to look at the specific claims that are most often made to contend for this traditional (for us) view of hell. 

I do want to emphasize that wonderful brothers and sisters hold to differing views about these issues. We want to vigorously discuss these matters, but we do so in a spirit of mutual love and respect. Having said that, what are the theological arguments for eternal conscious torment? Here are the ones I’ve found to be most common:

The justice of God requires eternal punishment.

This is a claim we hear often, and it can certainly seem compelling. People remind us of the horrors of someone like Adolf Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer, and then add in more common horrors such as those who abuse children or extort the savings of the elderly. Should these people not experience punishment for these heinous sins? After committing such vile, unthinkable atrocities against others, should their suffering be alleviated? Justice demands that they pay the price for these sins, and God cannot be unjust!

Of course, we don’t want to forget that those who hold other views of hell also believe that people will suffer in hell. They just differ on the purpose for this suffering and its final outcome. But there’s a deeper problem with this claim. Why aren’t we subject to eternal judgment? Were our sins somehow not as sinful as these other people? Were we a little less rebellious? Do we “get in” because we were just nicer than they were? We know the answer is emphatically, “no.” Salvation is all about the grace of God, we weren’t saved because of our own righteousness. We were able to enter into relationship with God because Christ took on the penalty of our sin. He died our death so we could receive his life.

And when did he do this? Romans 5:10 tells us he did this “while we were still his enemies.” He did this for us while we still would have fit the descriptions of vile, sinful, rebellious humanity we see in the first three chapters of Romans. Jesus died for the very people who were crucifying him (Luke 23:34). Christ became the sacrifice that not only atoned for our sins “but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

What does this mean? If justice has already been completely satisfied in the sacrifice of Christ, then this is no longer a matter of justice. The punishment for all sin has already been meted out to Christ. He is (John 1:29) “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Everyone must respond to God’s grace in faith, of course, and we all agree with this. The question is: Can people in hell still respond in repentance and faith to God’s grace, and—if not—why not? This claim doesn’t answer that question. The justice of God no more requires eternal punishment for them than it does for us because Jesus bore the penalty for all our sins on the cross.

Sinning against the infinitely glorious God requires infinite punishment.

This is another claim that can resonate with us. It appeals to our sense of devotion to God, our deep worship of God, and our desire to exalt him. But if we take the time to think through this idea, we find it’s also problematic. What exactly is the understanding being argued here? It’s that it’s not what a person does that makes it worthy of eternal punishment, it’s to whom they do it. God is infinitely holy and glorious; so sinning against him results in infinite guilt and punishment.

Of course, this can be merely a more sophisticated and more focused version of the argument we just considered. Christ already suffered the consequences of our sin—infinite or otherwise. But what if someone doesn’t accept his sacrifice for them? Does that mean they’re left unavoidably with infinite punishment because God is infinitely holy and glorious? 

This can sound somewhat persuasive until we actually think through how sin and punishment work. If a child sins against their incredibly loving, patient parent, does that mean it doesn’t matter what they specifically did, it’s all about to whom they did it? If your child sasses back when you make them finish an unpleasant chore (“I don’t want to do that! I hate that chore!”), are they deserving of the same punishment they would be if they screamed obscenities at you, hit you repeatedly in the face and willfully knocked over the TV? Of course not. This isn’t the way punishment works in everyday life, and it’s also not the way it works in the Bible. The Old Testament law shows very different consequences for differing sins—even differing sins against the same person. It’s simply not scripturally true that all sin against our infinitely holy and glorious God results in the same punishment.

It’s ironic that proponents of eternal conscious torment will often reference Luke 12:47-48, which speaks of servants receiving different levels of punishment (some more blows, some less). They’ll use this to speak of different levels of punishment in hell. But you can’t have differing degrees of infinity! It doesn’t make any sense to argue there can be variation in the intensity of the punishment but the duration of the punishment, that must be infinite. This is special pleading. Either sinning against God results in completely limitless punishment or it doesn’t. This idea doesn’t fit what we see in Scripture of punishment or what we know of punishment in everyday life, and it’s not logically consistent with other claims about eternal conscious punishment.

The eternal conscious torment of the lost is required to bring glory to God.

This is another claim we hear fairly often, but I find it very disturbing. Is the eternal torment of the lost required to bring God optimal glory? Everyone in this discussion seems to agree that what we believe about hell tells us a great deal about what we believe about God. Yes, we all agree God is worthy of infinite glory, and that everything in his accomplished plan will result in God being glorified. But are we really to believe in a God whose primary motivation in everything is to bring himself glory? Is God really that self-obsessed? Is this narcissistic picture of God really the God of the Bible, the God who sacrifices himself for his creation because he loves them? Is this the God of the cross? Is this the God we’re supposed to emulate in our own relationships?

And, even if that were so, is God truly most glorified by the suffering and torment of his created beings (even if they’re rebelling against him)? And, according to what many claim, this eternal torment is supposed to demonstrate God’s glory and love to those who are saved. This is the idea: We were all hopelessly bound in sin from which we couldn’t free ourselves; God graciously released us from bondage and saved us, but left the rest to remain bound and condemned; their judgment of torment is then supposed to show us how incredibly gracious and loving God was to us, thus bringing God glory. Does this make any sense? Imagine you have seven children who run away from home. They all end up bound and abandoned in a house that’s been set on fire. So you run in and graciously unbind two of your children and take them to safety, but leave the other five to remain in the burning house. When your two saved children ask why you’re not saving their siblings but allowing them to die, you respond, “Because allowing them to die in the fire shows you how much I love you!” Again, does this make any sense? Does this sound like the God we see in Scripture? Wouldn’t God be much more glorified by transforming all of his enemies, saving all of his creation?

There is no possibility of salvation after death.

The problem with this claim is that we’re not told this anywhere in Scripture. (I previously addressed Hebrews 9:27 in this post.) This is something most of us have assumed, but it’s just that—an assumption. And we never want to base our theology on an assumption. We certainly don’t want to use our assumption as some kind of authoritative basis for making or evaluating other claims (especially when there are so many passages of Scripture that speak of all of God’s creation being restored and worshiping him). If we’re going to hold to this claim as some kind of absolute that makes impossible other views of judgment and restoration, we need to be able to explain why there is no possibility of salvation after death.

We’re often strongly driven to share the gospel with an unsaved friend or family member when they’re close to death. We have no problem with the idea that someone can be saved in the last few seconds of life (even if they’re a Hitler or Dahmer). We even use the possibility of someone repenting in those last few seconds as a possible comfort. Who knows, God may have reached them even in the very final split second before they died. But—as soon as they’re dead—we assume that’s it, that all changes. Why? Does God no longer love the person after they die? Does he no longer desire that they be saved and reconciled to him? Does he no longer have grace for this person? Are they no longer someone for whom he died? Is he no longer able to save them? Can death actually, effectively separate someone from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39)? Why? Scripture never tells us any of this, so why should we believe this is just the way things are?

Let me give you another illustration. Imagine, again, that you have a large family. And, let’s say that you visit the Grand Canyon. You give your kids a very clear warning: “Over there, on the other side of that rock wall, is a huge canyon. If you go past that wall, you’ll fall off the edge and drop for a long, long way with nothing to stop you, and you’ll die!! So stay back from the edge! Don’t go too close!” One of your kids ignores your warning, climbs over the wall and falls off the edge. But they’re able to grab a rock jutting out of the canyon wall, and they’re dangling there within reach of the top. So you go over and stand at the edge, looking down at them, and say: “Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I say that would happen? Now there are you are—past the edge! I can’t do anything for you now! You’re going to fall and die!” Does that sound right to you? Is God like this parent? Why do we assume that God loves the lost so much and desires to save them before they die, but that he can’t or won’t do anything to save them after they die? Why do we assume that everything is about this life when— from a biblical perspective—this life is so fleeting and limited? Why do we think we can draw lines that God has not?

Eternal conscious torment is necessary for evangelism.

This is a bit of a non sequitur, meaning that it doesn’t actually do anything to make belief in eternal conscious torment necessary. Even if we could show that belief in an eternal hell can be somehow useful in evangelism, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. We don’t want to adopt a belief just because it seems to work; we don’t want to slip into “the ends justifies the means” kind of thinking. But this is a common argument, so let’s consider it.

Scripture tells us a great deal about evangelism and gives us many portrayals of those evangelizing, but we don’t see anything showing the necessity of eternal conscious torment in any of these passages. Many of us are so accustomed to hearing fearful descriptions of hell as motivation for people to be saved—or motivation for us to get out there and share the gospel—that it’s a shock to us to realize the Bible doesn’t do this. We see a lot of presentations of the gospel in the New Testament; we don’t see in any of these presentations of the gospel a warning that if people don’t get saved, they’re going to die and go to hell. (I’m not saying this isn’t true, just that we don’t see the Bible including this as a reason—or the reason—to place one’s faith in Christ.) We see a lot of places where we’re encouraged to lovingly share the good news with others. We don’t see anyplace where Peter or Paul motivated people to evangelize because “those people out there are dying and going to hell!” So this claim doesn’t fit what we do see in Scripture.

It’s also not true that this view of hell is necessary, or even helpful, for evangelism. Actually we find just the opposite. We see many examples in history of people who were so repelled by the idea of a God who eternally torments his enemies that they rejected Christianity, people such as Charles Darwin and Bertrand Russell. 1 If you’ve spent much time sharing the faith with others, you’ve doubtlessly experienced the same thing. This has almost aways been an issue with unbelievers with whom I’ve talked. This belief has actually pushed a huge number of people away from the faith, especially when preached in a forceful, aggressive manner. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not true, of course, but we had better be certain of the truth of a claim that others find so repulsive before we insist on it in evangelism!

Those who come to belief because of a fear of hell often end up weak, shallow Christians, or later leave the faith altogether. We refer to this form of evangelism as “fire insurance.” This way of sharing the “good news” actually confuses both unbelievers and believers. Just think of how the gospel is frequently presented: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. And if you don’t accept him, you’ll burn in hell forever.” We don’t see the necessity of eternal conscious torment in the many passages in Scripture on evangelism, and we don’t see it in the actual responses of countless unbelievers. If anything, the emphasis of this view of hell may have actually done great harm.

The doors of hell are locked on the inside.

This isn’t really an argument for eternal conscious torment, but it’s frequently offered as a way of making an eternal hell more understandable or even more tolerable (at least as a concept). This common description of hell comes from a well-known quote of C.S. Lewis from The Problem of Pain. I confess, I’ve referred to this picture of hell many times over the years myself. It does make the idea of torment in hell seem easier to accept. But there’s one real problem with this familiar description. The Bible doesn’t actually describe hell this way . . . ever. There isn’t one place in Scripture where it describes judgment in hell as something that people are actively choosing and which they would resist ever leaving. Instead, this postmortem torment is always seen as something imposed on people, something to which they’re subjected. So this description may comfort us in some ways—and I understand the appeal. But it’s not at all in harmony with what we see of hell in Scripture. No we have to deal with the actual reality of the torment of hell as described in the New Testament. (We’ll look more closely at the issue of free will when we consider challenges to universal salvation.)

I don’t see any theological argument that would require belief in eternal conscious torment. But are there any compelling arguments for universal reconciliation and restoration? We’ll look at that in the next post.

If you’d like more expansive arguments for and against the differing views of hell, I’d recommend beginning with one of these books:

Four Views on Hell (2nd ed.) by Preston Sprinkle, Denny Burk, John Stackhouse Jr, Robin Parry, and Jerry Walls

All You Want to Know about Hell: Three Christian Views of God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin by Steve Gregg

  1. Steve Gregg, All You Want to Know about Hell, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 17-18.

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]

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