Is An Eternal Consequence Too Long?

imagesJonathan Edwards shook the world of the 1740’s with his fiery sermon. “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” is how it came to be known, and in it, Edwards combined vivid imagery of Hell with a Scriptural case for why sinners – in other words all of us – deserve to go there. More to the point – why we will go there unless we change our ways and let the saving work of Jesus Christ transform our lives. Wildly unpopular today, the idea of Hell, and of the justice implicit in God allowing his creation to go there, resonated with countless listeners, and played a part in what became known as the Great Awakening.

Most people today – and in that I include nominal believers – would laugh at such a sermon. Convinced in their own righteousness, their own “goodness,” they feel no hesitation living life as they choose and expecting God to give them their “gold star” when they stand before the Pearly Gates asking for admission. Even non-believers, if they confront the possibility that their insistence that there is no God proves mistaken, feel pretty confident that a “loving” God will not reject them. “Be a nice person” is their guiding principle, and that’s really not that hard to do, they conclude.

One skeptic made the case against Hell this way: punishment can serve only one of three purposes: prevention of further crimes, as the offender is locked away; deterrence of future crimes when he is released, and fairness to the victim of the crime. The first two, he argued, no longer apply once a person dies, since they can no longer commit sin and won’t ever be “getting out.” That leaves the final purpose – justice or vengeance.

“If Hell were a temporary, purgatory-like punishment, that would make perfect sense, but if it’s eternal, then no crime can possibly equal that. I imagine that Hitler will have worked off all of those deaths after the first few trillion years, but then he’s still stuck there forever. So what victim is left to compensate? God? If he’s really an omnipotent being, then it is impossible for a lesser being to harm him. If he’s keeping people in Hell because of a slight to his image, then I would call him petty and evil.”

This view has considerable appeal to those with a Western sense of justice. Certainly, as it relates to Earthly matters, this approach to crime and justice makes sense. The idea, after all, is to try eventually to rehabilitate people, to allow them to see and repent of the evil of their ways and eventually rejoin society once their debt to it has been paid. But even here, of course, there are those who are so committed to the evil that they do that they can never be released. Serial killers or rapists would fall into that category. Whatever may have led them to their crimes, whatever developmental or emotional issue that changed them as they grew, the only rational way to respond to them is to keep them separated from anyone that they could harm. This separation – this punishment – goes on for as long as they live. The choices they made while younger have mandated this outcome.

But at a deeper level, the skeptic’s third contention –relating to the eternal nature of Hell – actually misses the point. He views God’s position as that of human victim in need of protection, which obviously does not apply to an omnipotent being. The only other possibility, to the skeptic, is to view God as a petty tyrant, glorying in the pain he can cause to someone who has given him in a trifling offense. The problem in the analysis is that it proceeds from a mistaken premise – that God’s judgment is akin to a criminal sentence on Earth and must therefore satisfy the requirements of earthly justice. Our “offenses” are against God and, though he cannot be harmed, he is not putting us “in jail to protect himself. He is, instead, separating himself from us in the same way we separate ourselves from someone who has done us wrong. We clearly have that right, whether or not we think the person will re-offend against us in the future. There is nothing that requires us to give such a person a second chance at fellowship, to invite them into our homes, or to treat them the way we would a close friend.

Unfortunately for us, the issue we are encountering relates to the nature of time. Earthly justice recognizes that our days are numbered, and that with the passing of time, we grow old and debilitated, eventually to a point that we can no longer harm others. Death stands at the end of every person’s life. But God is not bound by time; he is an eternal being and he has created us to be eternal as well. For reasons of his own, he has decided that he will not annihilate us. We will go on living, eternally conscious and aware of ourselves and our surroundings. Life without end. It’s what we all long for, in truth. It’s why we fight so hard against aging and against the final curtain. We want live in health and happiness, of course, perhaps health, wealth and happiness, but if we had those things, we would without doubt want them to last forever, to enjoy life to its fullest forever.

But is this not also the bad news? Since God is not limited by time, perceiving every moment in an endless present, then each of our offenses against him is eternally present to him. We remain locked in our rebellion, aware of God’s presence but unable to reunite with him. By that measure, eternal separation from him – what we experience as eternal punishment – starts to make a bit more sense.

Fortunately for us, he also possesses the kind of mercy that we can only begin to imagine. He has given us free will and the opportunity to spend eternity with him. He has promised to do all the work of making us fit for that type of interaction. Despite our rebellion, and our “crimes” against him, he wishes to reunify with us, but not at the cost of breaking our free will, or of violating his own just character. We need only assent to his gift, to allow him to undo what sin has introduced into our relationship.

But for many, the rebellion goes on forever. 

Posted by Al Serrato

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  1. Paulie says:

    Thanks Al. That hits it …esp the description of hell.

  2. zilch says:

    So al, “hell” for you is just “separation from God for eternity”. That doesn’t sound that bad- I’m separated from God right now, and my life, while not a bowl of cherries, is perfectly acceptable and even fun. I’ll take an eternity of such life.

    cheers from rainy Vienna, zilch

    • Al says:

      Zilch, it’s not “just” separation. Separation will be unspeakable torment, by its very nature. Think of a loved one who lights up the room just by walking into it. Think of whatever activity gives you joy. Think of the feeling of despair that comes from the thought of being trapped somewhere, no longer able to associate with others, control your destiny, make choices, knowing all the while that your loved ones are somewhere near but totally inaccessible to you. Now multiply this not by a hundred fold or a million fold but by an infinite eternity. It is not trifling. This is why hell is “torment” and not “torture.” Our earthly joys are a dim reflection of the glory of the creator of those joys; when we shake our fist at him, and want to be God ourselves, we had better be careful what we wish for because he may eventually grant our request.

      • zilch says:

        Al- first you said that Hell was “separation from God”. Now you say that Hell is “separation from all I love”. These are not the same to me. I suspect you’re a more lake of fire guy.

        You point out, quite rightly, that eternal life in health and wealth is desirable. As I’ve pointed out before: the desire to live forever in happiness is so great that it can make us believe in things that do not exist.

        If the thought that you will go to Heaven keeps you going, then more power to you. That doesn’t mean that you’re right.

        • Al says:

          Zilch, I’m trying to flesh out what “separation from God” entails. No, I don’t picture a literal lake of fire. I start with basic human emotion as it relates to the desire to not be isolated, to be in contact with people we love, and to do things that are enjoyable. Every such thing that gives me joy is but a dim reflection of the source of that joy, as the created thing can never be greater than the creator. Then I start to imagine what such despair multiplied by infinity and eternity would feel like. To be aware that our rebellion – our misuse of free will – has led to such an end, that it is totally our fault that we are in the situation we are in. A lake of fire would seem preferable by contrast.

  3. Walter says:

    What good reason exists that there cannot be post-mortem repentance and subsequent forgiveness? Assuming for the sake of argument that we are resurrected with our earthly personalities fully restored, what reason is there to believe that I might forever be locked into a state of rebellion just because I happened to perish in that state while on earth?

    • Al says:

      Walter, that is an intriguing question. I guess I’d have to say that it would not be a matter of “reason,” in that postmortem repentance would not be “unreasonable.” I don’t think it is consistent with Scripture, however. I think of Hebrews 9:27, which conveys the idea that we die once and then face judgment. Also, Jesus’ message of repentance is directed to us now, as living human beings. Presumably, it matters what we do here and we should not wait to find out whether post-mortem repentance is an option. I’d be interested to hear your views on this.

  4. Matt says:

    Speaking as an ex-Christian (current deist), I can’t help but find your answer to the question of an eternity in hell insufficient to resolve the issue at hand. As I see it, hell as “eternal separation from God” can only play out one of two ways:

    1. Hell works off of an individual’s personal desire to be with God (as forwarded by zilch). In this case, hell has little to no meaning as any person who legitimately had no desire to spend time with God would be nonplussed by the possibility of spending an eternity away from him. While you could argue something akin to “deep down everyone wants to spend time with their creator”, this is simply not true. I’ve met a fair number of people who either genuinely despise God or else are purely disinterested in Him. For such individuals, this “hell” would be the fulfillment of their deepest wishes, thereby negating its role as a punishment altogether. The only ones affected would be those who actively sought God but did not find him (mostly people in what turned out to be false religions), effectively punishing them for their desire to be with God.

    2. Hell works off of an overwhelming drive to be with God that is present in all humans and yet is separate from free will and individual desire. Under this point of view, separation from God would, by design, represent a state of eternal suffering. In this case, God cannot be excused for simply refusing to spend eternity with sinners (which would be His divine prerogative), as He designed their drive to be with him in the first place. Given this, if God truly is omnipotent then He would have the ability to stop such suffering, shutting off the drive with the ease of flipping a switch. By choosing not to do so, God is actively punishing sinners just as much as if he tortured them in a literal “lake of fire” for all eternity, thus reopening the initial criticism that eternal punishment necessarily becomes excessive at some point.

    Besides these points, I have to ask how you address the fact that, if the Bible is true, then people who devotedly follow other religions (even religions espousing similar morals to Christianity) will be condemned to an eternity away from God (and therefore suffering) because they bet on the wrong moral philosophy. (source:John 14:6 “…no man comes to the father but by me”)

    • Al says:


      Thanks for the feedback. Your comments are very thought-provoking and I will try to expand on these thoughts in a later post.

      1. Your comments presuppose that life on Earth is the same as the afterlife, but I’m not sure that is true. The people you refer to as being perfectly content away from God are interacting presently with God’s handiwork, in the form of other people and the beauty and order of the created world. Hell, in my reflections, would be more akin to a modern prison, where a person’s liberty is confined to a particular place and where he is no longer able to make choices effecting who he associates with and what he does. So, the risk for such “God-haters” is that they are spiritually “confined” to an eternity with only themselves, or perhaps others like them. Your final comment, about punishing people who genuinely but mistakenly follow the “wrong” god, presupposes that God is not powerful enough to present to them in some fashion prior to their deaths the true God who they have been seeking. I don’t know if I can make that case Biblically, but it stands to reason to me that an omnipotent God can break throw mistakes in knowledge in order to get to the heart that is in truth seeking to align with him. That’s why Jesus came in the first place. This is quite different than those who reject God and who die in their rebellion to him.

      2. I don’t think its accurate to say that God “designed” people to want to be with him. This creates in my mind the image of someone eg eating chocolate in front of children and refusing to share, knowing that they would really like to have some. It seems to me that built into us is an appreciation of things that are “good” and “beautiful” and otherwise pleasing. I don’t know if I can imagine things any other way, where I deliberately seek broken, imperfect, poorly made, badly operating things. God, as the ultimate expression of perfection, is therefore a being that we cannot help but want to draw near to. Could he flip this off? By annihilation, it seems, but not by turning off the desire. I say this because a free will being will naturally seek perfection. To flip the switch you speak of would therefore eliminate free will. So, why doesn’t he annihilate us? I’m not sure that I can answer that, although I think it has to do with the nature of being generally, and to God’s justice. I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand it, but of course my adherence to Christianity isn’t based on fully understanding it, but on believing in the truth of the historical evidence.

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