Atheist Robert Ingersoll (1833-99), reasoned that:
· Eternal punishment must be eternal cruelty…and I do not see how any man, unless he has the brain of an idiot, or the heart of a wild beast, can believe in eternal punishment.
Is God a horrible monster? It is relatively easy to point out Ingersoll’s logical fallacy. He uses God to disprove God. In essence, he claims that the God fails to measure up to his moral standards of love and justice. However, if there is no God, then there are can exist no objective and absolute moral standards by which to judge Him.
Consequently, when the atheist claims that the God of the Bible is “unjust,” I merely retort:
· How can you accuse our God of violating an absolute standard of justice? You are a moral relativist and deny that there are any absolute moral standards. Once you reject God, there can be no foundation for objective moral judgments.
Nevertheless, the Bible’s teachings on hell remain a problem for the Church. Even “Christians” condemn the Bible for it’s teachings of a God who judges and punishes. Christian evolutionist and former co-head of the Biologos Foundation, Karl Giberson, approvingly quotes the militant atheist, Richard Dawkins, that the:
· [OT God is a] “tyrannical anthropomorphic deity” [and] “commanded the Jews to go on genocidal rampages”…But who believes in this [OT] deity any more, besides those same fundamentalists who think the earth is 10,000 years old? Modern theology has moved past this view of God.
How are we to answer?
As Christians, we want to have a coherent faith. We therefore want to understand how this concept of “hell” or “eternal judgment” fits together with the other doctrines we believe about God – His love, justice, omniscience and omnipotence.
However, hell is a notoriously difficult doctrine to defend. For one thing, in order to defend a doctrine, we first have to know what we are defending. However, no one here has ever seen or experienced hell. At least, there is no convincing proof of this.
More importantly, well-meaning Bible interpreters have honest disagreements about the nature of hell. For instance, do we interpret “the lake of fire” (Rev. 21:8; 20:10; Mat. 13:42) literally or figuratively? Does God literally stoke the fires of hell for all eternity, as some pejoratively suggest? If we take this description literally, what then do we do with the teachings that claim that the unrepentant will be cast into “outer darkness” (Mat. 22:13)? It is apparent that at least one of these descriptions must be taken figuratively.
Although the nature of hell or eternal judgment is somewhat unclear, it’s reality and existence is Biblically beyond dispute. So let’s try to lay out what we understand about eternal punishment in an attempt to reconcile hell with the Bible’s teachings about a loving, righteous, and omnipotent God.
I will use a common argument against the Biblical faith as a way to organize a defense:
I will use a common argument against the Biblical faith as a way to organize a defense:
· Premise #1: The Bible’s concept of “Hell” or “eternal punishment” is neither just nor merciful.
· Premise #2: The Bible portrays God as just and merciful.
· Conclusion: The Bible’s revelation is contradictory and therefore shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Against Premise #1:
First of all, God’s judgments are regarded as just throughout Scripture. The Book of Proverbs claims that God calls all through His revelations, which are there for the taking:
- Wisdom calls aloud in the street, she raises her voice in the public squares; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out, in the gateways of the city she makes her speech: "How long will you simple ones love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge? If you had responded to my rebuke, I would have poured out my heart to you and made my thoughts known to you. But since you rejected me when I called and no one gave heed when I stretched out my hand, since you ignored all my advice and would not accept my rebuke, I in turn will laugh at your disaster; I will mock when calamity overtakes you. (Proverbs 1:20-26)
The knowledge of God is available to all, but we reject it. As in these verse, there are so many that reveal that God continues to implore us to accept Him, but we refuse. Why? We refuse to acknowledge our debt to Him. We want to go our own way, and refuse to tolerate the presence of a God who rebukes us. Therefore, we prefer to run from the light of light and to hide our misdeeds in the darkness (John 3:19-20).
He would plead with Israel to return to Him:
- “Go, proclaim this message toward the north: 'Return, faithless Israel,' declares the LORD, 'I will frown on you no longer, for I am merciful,' declares the LORD, 'I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt-- you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me,'” (Jeremiah 3:12-13)
However, Israel would continue to rebel and refuse to acknowledge their guilt. Is God unjust for punishing? Certainly not if Israel deserved the punishment.
Besides, according to the Bible, the punishment fits the crime. Jesus taught that there are many degrees of punishment:
· "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.” (Matthew 11:21-22)
We do not know what form these varying degrees of punishment take. However, for those who have more evidence, judgment will be less bearable than for those who had less evidence:
· But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:48)
I would ask the atheist, “What is unjust about the penalty fitting the crime? Or how does this teaching about punishment contradict God’s character?” He might respond that no God worth His salt would punish. However, this fails to show that there is a contradiction in Biblical revelation – the very thing that the atheist must demonstrate.
We do not know enough about hell to indict our Lord for “injustice” or to prove that the Bible contradicts itself. There are too many interpretive uncertainties. While the atheists focus only the most egregious aspect of the teachings – eternal burning - this might be figurative and might only apply to the worst offenders. In fact, Jesus associated the “weeping…and gnashing of teeth” of hell with their own regrets in having eternally missed out on the blessings of the kingdom, rather than any proactive divine torture:
· "There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.” (Luke 13:28)
I would ask the atheist how this represents a Bible contradiction. Perhaps also we have been too quick to dismiss annihilationism as one possible form of eternal punishment – perhaps even the worst one. There is not a verse that absolutely rules out annihilation as one possible punishment out of many others! (Some Christians argue that we have an eternal soul, and therefore, it is indestructible, precluding any possibility of annihilation. However, this notion seems to be contradicted by numerous verses – 1 Tim. 6:16; 2 Tim 1:9-10; 1 Cor. 15:50-54).
Therefore, when the atheist rails against the injustice of God in sentencing unbelievers to eternal punishment, I ask them if their judgment would be any different if I would show them verses pointing to annihilation, and there are many. For instance:
· “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
· They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power. (2 Thes. 1:9)
Perhaps these (and numerous other verses) are not teaching annihilationism, but the atheist must now answer whether he would consider this too as evidence of contradiction.
Of course, the atheist will retort, “If God is truly merciful, He would destroy no one.” However, we can simply respond, “Where in the Bible does it suggest that God must continue to be merciful towards those who continue to harden their hearts against Him?” Of course, God’s mercy makes no such guarantee!
Against Premise #2:
We often assume that eternal punishment is not compatible with an all-living God, but what if the condemned have freely chosen their condemnation? Instead, what if God is not doing the judging? In fact, Even though the Father had committed judgment to the Son (John 5:22), Jesus denied that He would directly be involved in judgment:
· "As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. (John 12:47-48; 5:45; 8:15)
I am convinced that our Lord has been wrongly indicted. Instead, it is the word that we have implanted in our hearts that will judge us (Romans 2:15-16). This word is a source of guilt and shame when it is violated. These feelings cause us to flee from the Lord.
Although there will be a great and final judgment, it seems that the damned are already self-damned. They do not want to be in God’s presence and under His scrutiny and flee from Him:
- For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. This is the verdict [or “condemnation;” KJV; “judgment;” NASB, ESV]: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. (John 3:17-20)
Jesus taught that He will not “condemn the world.” Instead, the unbeliever is “condemned already.” How did this take place? He condemned himself through his love of the darkness and rejection of the truth (“light”). He fled away from his one hope, Jesus.
Besides, if they reject the light in this world, how much more will they reject the searing and searching light of God in the next, where His light will beam even more intensely to expose their sins! They will continue to reject the light and run from it.
How does this represent the injustice of God? How does this contradict God’s revealed character? It doesn’t!
Indeed, there is a lot of Biblical evidence that when we embrace sin, we hate the light that exposes it. When Adam and Eve fell into sin, they hid from God, lied to Him and even blamed Him. Never once did they confess their sin and ask for another chance. And when they were promised death and expelled from the presence of God, they seemed to gladly accept the verdict (Gen. 3) in order to be free from God’s searing light.
In Jesus’ parable, when the unrepentant rich man cried out to God from his place of torment, he never once asked to be brought to where God is. Instead, he simply asked that he might be given some relief in hell (Luke 16:19-31). Such is the hatred of the light! Does this negate God’s love for His creation? Not at all. Instead, He seems to allow us to have what we desire.
There are many other verses that suggest that the unrepentant are self-condemned by their flight from the light (Isaiah 33:14-15; 2:20-22; Psalm 1:5; 15:1-2; 24:3; Deut 5:25; Deut. 5:25; Mal. 3:2).
What then should we make of the great judgment if humanity is already self-condemned (Rev. 20:11)? Perhaps the lovers of the dark will merely flee away, unable to stand before a righteous God in view of their unforgiven sins.
Indeed, for us, the great judgment will merely confirm what we have already chosen (1 Thess. 4:14-17; 1 John 3:2; John 3:21). Perhaps, also for the unbeliever, the judgment will merely rubber-stamp what has already become quite obvious and what they had chosen for themselves.
Where then is the injustice? And how does this contradict the Bible’s claims about God? The atheist might attempt to accuse God of lacking in mercy:
- “If God is all-powerful, then He could have changed everyone’s heart to love the light!”
This represents a common misconception about God’s omnipotence. While God can do anything He wants to do, He cannot do it in any way we might desire. There are things that God cannot do. He cannot sin or break His promises. He cannot save in any way that we might wish. He is constrained by His holy nature, as strange as this might seem. Jesus had prayed that, if there was some other way for the Father to accomplish His purpose in salvation, He should not require Jesus to suffer the crucifixion. However, there was no other way.
We also assume that there might have been a less painful or punitive way for God to accomplish His purposes, but perhaps there wasn’t. There is a lot that we do not understand about our Redeemer. Therefore, we shouldn’t be hasty to bring indictments against Him, as Job had.
In addition to this, the atheists’ understanding of mercy isn’t the Bible’s understanding of mercy. Unlike justice, mercy can discriminate. God is free to choose the objects of his mercy as we can choose who to invite to our party. There is nothing illegitimate about this. The Bible never claims that God will be merciful to all. Therefore, there is no contradiction between hell and what the Bible claims about God.
Nevertheless, it does seem that, in the end, God will pour out His Spirit upon all the people who remain, and there will be a great salvation (Joel 2:28; Romans 11:15; Rev. 1:7; Mat. 24:30; Isaiah 66:22-23; Zech. 14:16-18)! Our God is indeed merciful!
Nevertheless, there is a hell and the prospect of landing there is a terror, as it should be:
- The study, appearing in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE, found that criminal activity is lower in societies where people's religious beliefs contain a strong punitive component than in places where religious beliefs are more benevolent. A country where many more people believe in heaven than in hell, for example, is likely to have a much higher crime rate than one where these beliefs are about equal. The finding surfaced from a comprehensive analysis of 26 years of data involving 143,197 people in 67 countries. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4971023/
Perhaps we need a greater dose of hell. Perhaps we need to revisit Jonathan Edwards and his sermon – Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God – which had reportedly brought many to repent of their sins. Nevertheless, this essay will certainly not relieve all of our confusion on the subject. However, for some of us, it is sufficient to know that our Savior suffers along with us (Isaiah 63:9; Hebrews 4:15). Others are comforted in knowing that, in the end, He will explain and justify all of the confusing elements. Indeed, our God has many secrets (Deut. 29:29), which He purposely keeps close to His breast. Consequently, we see only shadows (1 Cor. 13:9, 12).
Abraham saw only the mysterious shadows when God asked him to go against everything he understood and to offer his promised son Isaac as a sacrifice. Our Lord also thrusts us into situations where understanding fails us, and we are forced to walk only by the light available in the “valley of the shadow of death.” However, we are able to find comfort knowing that He is at our side, and that, one day, we will see Him as He truly is.