Contemporary Challenges to Eternal Punishment
The two main contemporary challenges to the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell are universalism, the belief that all will be saved, and annihilationism, the belief that those condemned to hell will be destroyed rather than eternally suffering.
The two main contemporary challenges to the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell are universalism and annihilationism. Universalism is the view that in the end all human beings will be gathered into the love of God and be saved. Annihilationism is the view that those who die apart from saving faith in Jesus Christ will be ultimately destroyed rather than suffering eternally. However, both of these positions are inconsistent with the biblical portrait of hell. The biblical witness not only describes hell as destruction but also as punishment and banishment, all of which are pictured as eternal and conscious. Furthermore, the confession of the historic church goes against both of these contemporary positions.
The future punishment of the wicked in hell is a significant theme in the New Testament, woven into the whole fabric of its teaching. Future punishment is addressed in some way by every New Testament author; Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter, Jude, and the author of Hebrews all mention it in their writings. Thus, Jesus teaches about eternal punishment, and so does every New Testament author.
Yet, even with this testimony, several contemporary challenges to eternal punishment face the church. The primary challenges are universalism and annihilationism.
Contemporary Challenges to Eternal Punishment
This is the view that in the end all human beings will be gathered into the love of God and be saved. Universalists claim that a loving God would never allow anyone to suffer forever in hell. They teach that if there is a hell, it is a place of purification, preparing souls for ultimate salvation. Historically, universalists have typically rejected Jesus’s deity, miracles, and substitutionary atonement and hold instead that he died merely to demonstrate God’s love.
Generally, arguments for universalism take an exegetical approach, looking at texts that seem to use universal redemption or restoration language (John 3:17; Rom. 11:32; Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20–21; 1 Tim. 2:3–6; 1 Pet. 3:9; 1 John 2:2), and/or a theological approach, related especially to universalists’s views of God’s love and final victory (see J.I. Packer’s analysis and critique, “Universalism: Will Everyone Be Saved?” in Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment).
Universalism is a grave error. It is inconsistent with the witness of Scripture and the church’s teachings (Matt. 25:41, 46; Mark 9:43–48; 2 Thess. 1:9–10; Rev. 20:14–15; 21:8).
This is the view that those who die apart from saving faith in Jesus Christ will be ultimately destroyed. Annihilationists reject the historic view of hell as conscious, endless punishment. According to some annihilationists, this destruction occurs at death. According to most of its proponents associated with evangelicalism, however, this destruction will take place after a period of punishment in hell, which will pass away at the new creation. The most popular version of annihilationism in evangelical thought today is conditionalism (often called conditional immortality).
Conditionalism is the belief that God has created all human beings to be only potentially immortal. Upon union with Christ, believers participate in the divine nature and receive immortality. Unbelievers never receive this capacity to live forever and thus will ultimately cease to exist. Partly because annihilationism has historical connections to Socinianism, materialism, and the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, most annihilationists in contemporary evangelicalism prefer to be known as conditionalists. In general, the main arguments of conditionalism are exegetical (for example, interpreting “eternal” as age-long and the language of “destruction” as connoting annihilation) and theological (e.g., viewing an endless hell as too extreme to be just, as inconsistent with God’s love, and as marring God’s victory; see Christopher Morgan’s analysis and critique, “Annihilationism: Will the Unsaved Be Punished Forever?” in Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment).
Though not as erroneous as universalism (which is often linked with heresies about Christ, sin, and the atonement), annihilationism still fails to do justice to Scripture (Dan. 12:2; Matt. 25:41, 46; Mark 9:43–48; 2 Thess. 1:9–10). Annihilationism does not fit the biblical story, because at the end the unsaved do not cease to exist but, in line with the church’s historic position, endure never-ending torment in the lake of fire and are shut out of the New Jerusalem, the joyous dwelling place of God and his people forever (Rev. 20:10, 14–15; 21:8; 22:14–15).
The Existence and Eternality of Future Punishment
In light of the challenges to eternal punishment in universalism and annihilationism, it is essential to understand the biblical testimony to the nature and reality of hell. The best way to realize the serious error of these challenges is to see what the Scripture has to say concerning the existence and eternality of this punishment.
The Existence of Eternal Punishment
Three descriptions of hell recur throughout nearly all of the New Testament writers and point to the existence of eternal punishment. The three predominant pictures of hell that emerge are punishment, destruction, and banishment. Each description offers an important way of looking at the existence and nature of hell.
The chief description of hell in the New Testament is punishment. Every New Testament author clearly communicates hell as punishment. The punishment is deserved, consists of suffering, and is eternal. For clear examples, see Mark 9:42–48, Matthew 5:20–30 and chapters 24–25, Luke 16:19–31, 2 Thessalonians 1:5–10, Hebrews 10:27–31, James 4:12 and 5:1–5, 2 Peter 2:4–17, Jude 13–23, and Revelation 20:10–15.
Hell as destruction or death also plays a central role in Scripture. This destruction is likened to death, the second death, loss, and ruin. The theme of destruction occurs in the writings of most New Testament authors. Destruction is clearly used as a depiction of hell in Matthew 7:13–14, 24–27, and 24:51, Luke 13:3–5, Romans 9:22, Galatians 6:8, Philippians 1:28 and 3:19, 1 Thessalonians 5:13, 2 Thessalonians 1:5–10, 1 Timothy 6:9, Hebrews 10:27, James 1:11–15, 4:12, 5:3–5, and 5:20, 2 Peter 2:6, John 3:16, and Revelation 21:8.
The third central picture of hell in the New Testament is banishment. Whereas punishment stresses the active side of hell, banishment shows the horror of hell by highlighting what unbelievers miss—the very reason for their existence, namely, to glorify and love God. The idea of hell as banishment, separation, exclusion, or being left outside is found in the writings of most New Testament authors: Matthew 25:41; Mark 9:42–48; Luke 13:22–30; John 15:1–7; Romans 1:24, 26, 28; 2 Thessalonians 1:5–10; Revelation 22:14–15. Hell as banishment is especially prominent in the teachings of Jesus, particularly in the Gospel of Matthew. This prominence is to be expected because of the kingdom themes developed in Jesus’s teaching in Matthew. The contrast is vivid: believers are welcomed into the kingdom while the wicked are banished outside of it (Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 25:10–12, 30).
The Eternality of Future Punishment
The punishment of hell is depicted as conscious and eternal. Eternal punishment is deserved and therefore just. The Scriptures make clear that even the most seemingly minor infractions of God’s commands are taken with inestimable seriousness. Whereas we might be inclined to overlook one violation of God’s law as trivial, the Bible portrays any such violation in a way that is truly frightening. James asserts, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (2:10). Everyone will give an account for every careless word ever uttered (Matt. 12:33–37). God will reveal and judge every thought, attitude, and intention (Heb. 4:12–13). The justice of the future punishment of the wicked is axiomatic. Yet for clarity and emphasis, the biblical writers stress the justice of the retributive punishment in many passages (for example, Mark 9:42–48; Matt. 5:20–30; 23:33; 24:45–25:46; Luke 16:19–31; Rom. 1:18–3:20; 2 Thess. 1:5–10; Heb. 10:27–31; James 4:12, 5:1–5; 2 Pet. 2:4–17; Jude 6–23; Rev. 20:10–15.
The Scriptures add that the fire of this punishment is eternal, the smoke of the torment rises forever and ever, and the instruments of suffering are eternal. More than that, hell is called “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46) as well as “eternal destruction” (2 Thess. 1:9). The phrase “eternal punishment” is placed alongside “eternal life” in Matthew 25:46 in such a way that the natural interpretation would be to keep them parallel. It is important to note regarding the eternality of this punishment that if hell did not consist of conscious suffering, it is hard to see how hell could be said to be worse than death, worse than earthly suffering, filled with weeping and gnashing of teeth, or a place of misery. These images demonstrate that people in hell will be perfectly aware of their suffering and just punishment.
Further, the continual nature of the punishment is shown in Revelation 14:11, where it is said that the wicked “will have no rest day or night.” Jude 7 speaks of the “punishment of eternal fire.” The endlessness of this punishment is also confirmed by the forceful pronouncement in Revelation 20:10, “They will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” It is hard to imagine a stronger affirmation of endless punishment.
The Coherence of Eternal Punishment
It is also important to understand that the scriptural teaching about hell interrelates to the rest of theology and ultimately fits into a coherent whole. Note how the pictures of hell as eternal punishment, destruction, and banishment correspond to the biblical teachings concerning God, sin, the atonement, salvation, and heaven.
First, the three pictures of hell elaborated above as punishment, destruction, and banishment interweave with biblical portraits of God. Hell as punishment vividly depicts God as the Judge who justly sentences the wicked (cf. Rev. 20:10–15). Hell as destruction seems to portray God as the Warrior or Victor who defeats his enemies (cf. 2. Thess. 1:6–9). Hell as banishment views God as the King who allows only his citizens into his kingdom (cf. Matt. 7:21–23).
Second, hell as punishment, destruction, and banishment also flows naturally from the biblical portraits of sin. Each image of hell seems to be the logical result of a particular portrait of sin. Hell as punishment recognizes sin as guilt, crime, trespass, or transgression. Hell as destruction or death sees sin as opposition or spiritual death (e.g., Eph. 2; Rom. 5:12–21). Hell as banishment or separation views sin as alienation from God.
Similarly, various pictures of hell also show an “inaugurated eschatology” of sin and death. God’s wrath is upon sinners, and hell is the culmination and release of that wrath (Rom. 1:8–2:8; 5:6–11). Sinners are condemned already but await the ultimate condemnation in hell (John 3:16–36; 5:24–28). Sinners are now dead spiritually but await the second death. Unbelievers are alienated from God now but will be finally excluded from his presence. Sinners’ hearts are dark now but will eternally be in the “outer darkness” and “blackest darkness” of hell. The evidence is compelling: in some sense, the descriptions of hell can be viewed appropriately as culminations, extensions, intensifications, and logical continuations of unbelievers’ current state of sin.
Third, the three pictures of hell also appear to illustrate the biblical doctrine of the atonement. On the cross, Jesus died as a substitute for our sins and drank the cup of wrath—punishment (Rom. 3:21–31; 1 Pet. 3:18; Matt. 26:42). On the cross, Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins—death (cf. Heb. 9–10). On the cross, Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—banishment (Matt. 27:46).
Fourth, the three pictures of an eternal hell stand in contrast with the biblical portraits of an eternal salvation. Hell as punishment remains for those who are not justified by faith. Hell as destruction awaits those who never receive the new birth/life in Christ. Hell as banishment or separation is in store for all who have never been reconciled to God in Christ.
Finally, the three pictures of hell stand in contrast with biblical portraits of heaven. Hell as punishment stands opposite heaven as inheritance and reward (Matt. 25:31–46). Hell as destruction or death contrasts heaven as eternal life. Hell as banishment contrasts heaven as entrance into the kingdom and marvelous presence of God. Instead of inheriting the kingdom in Christ, unbelievers are punished eternally. Though God extends the invitation for new life in Christ, non-Christians opt for eternal destruction. Rather than experiencing unhindered fellowship with God through the calling of Christ (“come,” Matt. 25:34), the wicked are banished forever from God’s glorious presence. Christ graciously offers heaven, but sadly many people still refuse him and are cast into hell—the dreadful place of eternal, conscious punishment, destruction, and banishment.
- Bruce Milne, The Message of Heaven and Hell: Grace and Destiny
- Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, eds., Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment
- Robert A. Peterson, “Annihilation or Eternal Punishment?”
- Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment
- Sinclair Ferguson, “Universalism and the Reality of Eternal Punishment: The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment”
- William G. T. Shedd, The Doctrine of Endless Punishment
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