Would God Actually Sentence People to Eternal Hell?
“I don’t think a just God would punish people eternally for their sins.” Have you ever heard or said such a thing?
I use as an example something written by USA Today columnist Oliver “Buzz” Thomas:
“I can guarantee if one of our daughters turned out to be a murderer, neither [my wife nor I] would respond by setting fire to her. We wouldn’t torture her for a second, much less… eternity”.
His argument in particular may be interesting, but it is specious. It is a fallacious (deceptive/false) form of argumentation called “appeal to emotion.” This is especially apparent in Mr. Thomas’ use of the word “torture.” Are people tortured in hell? Certainly there is suffering and misery in hell. But one need not picture people on fire, flesh melting away, while being poked with pitchforks. (Note I have already discussed elsewhere as to whether or not the “fire” of hell is literal.)
Some have postulated that hell is not a place where God actively tortures sinners, but a place where the rebellious continue in their rebellion. C.S. Lewis thought, essentially, that the gates of hell were barred from the inside. Roman Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft believes that “Hell is…. not a passive suffering but an active rebellion.” So let us put aside the idea of being tortured for eternity, and think of it more in the realm of, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell, choose it.” In other words, those who do not desire God, the source of all love, joy, and goodness, will in the end get their wish and be separated from all love, joy, and goodness. What remains but hell?
Theologian R.C. Sproul sees it another way:
“A breath of relief is usually heard when someone declares, ‘Hell is a symbol for separation from God.’ To be separated from God for eternity is no great threat to the impenitent person. The ungodly want nothing more than to be separated from God. Their problem in hell will not be separation from God, it will be the presence of God that will torment them. In hell, God will be present in the fullness of His divine wrath…. They will know Him as an all-consuming fire.”
Now let me respond to Mr. Thomas’ statement with the following points:
1. God is more than a Father.
I believe Mr. Thomas’ argument in comparison is moot, the argument (in essence) that we would not punish our children so harshly (i.e. “I can guarantee if one of our daughters turned out to be a murderer…”). Having physical children simply does not compare to having children you created, “spoke into existence”, “invented.” (There is no perfect simile to use regarding God’s relationship to us.) Our children are our own flesh and blood; yet we did not create them. They are part of the human race like us and in this sense they are our brothers and sisters, “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.” But God is not of the same substance or kind as us; He created us, and created our children through us. He invented us (so to speak). He is Creator, we the creature. He is the author; we are the living story, painting, sculpture. He is so far above us in every way, we are at a complete loss for a simile or parallel. The value of every human being from all time put together still would not equal the worth of God. This all might sound cold, but it is true. Such language is not usually used in Scripture, but occasionally, as a reminder to us all, it comes out:
“the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales.…. All the nations are insignificant before him; they are regarded as absolutely nothing. To whom can you compare God?” (Isaiah 40:15-18).
“All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?’” (Daniel 4:35, NIV).
“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to him” (Psalm 24:1, NLT).
Now in the Mosaic Law we find “He who curses [reviles, dishonors, vilifies, or lightly esteems] his father or his mother shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:17, NASB). If God’s Law, given through Moses, declared such a harsh penalty for one’s indifference and/or rebellion towards his or her earthly parents, what kind of penalty might we expect to receive for indifference and rebellion towards the Maker of Heaven and Earth? In the New Testament Paul affirms that those who disobey their parents “fully know God’s righteous decree that those who [do] such things deserve to die” (Romans 1:30, 32). Thus “how much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished” who has lightly esteemed, dishonored, reviled, or cursed God? Therefore if Mr. Thomas wishes to make comparisons, let him do so soberly.
“If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the LORD Almighty (Malachi 1:6, NIV).
“When you did these things, I was silent, so you thought I was exactly like you. But now I will condemn you” (Psalm 50:21).
Never make the mistake of thinking God is like us.
2. God is the Judge.
Mr. Thomas is also comparing apples to oranges when he writes, “…if one of our daughters turned out to be a murderer, neither [my wife nor I] would respond by setting fire to her.” After all, human parents rarely have the judicial authority to sentence a child of their own for a crime… and if they for some reason did have such authority, it would be expected that the justice they meted out would be blind to the familial relationship. If guilty, the punishment as prescribed by the law would be the expected punishment. If imprisonment for life, then imprisonment for life. If the electric chair, electric chair. If burning at the stake, burning at the stake.
Now consider the amount of respect that should be given to someone with the legitimate authority to sentence others to death. (“Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” – John 19:10, NIV). We live in a nation of judges and juries, far removed from emperors, kings, and dictators. But imagine the kind of fear or respect we would be expected to have for such a person who wielded final authority, a person accountable to no one? How much more fear/respect should then be shown to the Lord God Almighty the very One who gives life and takes it away? Human judges might have the power to sentence us to death, but this King and Judge has the power over our eternal destination. Thus Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
So, again, attempting to compare a human being’s justice with God’s justice, falls short, in fact it demeans and lowers God.
3. Man is unable to mete out or even recognize perfect justice.
Allow me to change a word so as not to detract from this point. The author writes, “We wouldn’t torture her for a second, much less… eternity”. Let’s remove the obfuscation and answer a person who would say, “We would never condemn or punish a person, even a murderer, for eternity.” Okay, human beings might not do such a thing, but does that mean God would not? The argument does not follow. Add to this the fact that imperfect human beings will always risk the very real possibility of being imperfectly just (unjust) since no human being has perfect knowledge or understanding, no human being can be completely objective, and no human being can ever be perfectly wise. These characteristics or flaws in humanity preclude us from even being able to identify perfect justice or wisdom. If Justice was standing right in front of us, would we recognize it (or Him)? A human being can’t even define the perfect marriage or the perfect pomegranate or the perfect chair, none-the-less perfect justice.
What if eternal punishment in hell is the perfect penalty in response to transgression and rebellion against a perfect God? An imperfect human being can easily condemn eternal punishment as being unjust, or cruel, or wrong, but that would not necessarily make the accusation true. How can you judge God’s justice, imperfect man? The only way one could know perfect justice would be for God to reveal it to us… yet, would we not still struggle or wrestle with it? Would we not then just have to trust that God, by definition, would have to be doing what is just and right? Whatever the perfect, good and perfectly just Judge measures out, that is what is just and right. If He condemns to hell eternally, such a sentence would thus be just.
“It is unthinkable that God would do wrong, that the Almighty would pervert justice. Who appointed him over the earth? Who put him in charge of the whole world? If it were his intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all mankind would perish together and man would return to the dust” (Job 34:12-15, NIV).
To judge God or to judge what God has revealed is to make man the measure of all things, placing man above God.
4. Man’s inability to understand or even grasp God’s holiness.
Combine all of the above: God as more than our Father, God as Creator, God as above all and other than we, God as sovereign, God as omniscient, perfectly just, and wise. Add all those attributes together and we can then, hopefully, understand how set apart, righteous, holy, God is. Until humanity grasps this truth, they cannot grasp or realize how detestable they are, how wicked even one sin is in the eyes of this eternal, sovereign God. As Scripture says,
“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being” (Revelation 4:11, NIV).
Because of these things we should understand why the greatest commandment is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30, Deuteronomy 6:5).
Breaking the commandment brings condemnation. (All stand condemned already; as my friend Pastor Chris O’Brien of Tenth Presbyterian Church prays, “And Father we confess that this week, and even this morning, that we have not loved you will all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength…” How true!) Judgment and hell follows death for those who do not repent, turning to Jesus Christ for forgiveness of sin.
Yet we see Mr. Thomas use a “the punishment does not fit the crime” argument: “A bedrock principal of justice is that the punishment must fit the crime. We don't impose the death penalty for speeding tickets,” he writes. So the author considers God’s laws to be on the same level as speeding tickets? How subjective his opinion here, how unbiblical! Can he tell us what sins are parallel to speeding tickets? Can the author tell us which sins are worse than speeding tickets? But, of course, any response would find the author putting himself on the throne of God, proving, of course, the arrogance, depth, and breadth of humanity’s sin. How little honor and respect Mr. Thomas shows God by this comment. What disrespect! As 16th century Reformer John Calvin wrote, “Do they count it a small matter to insult the majesty of God in any one respect?”
Calvin also wrote, “How stupid and frivolous their fear that too much severity will be ascribed to God, if the reprobate are doomed to eternal punishment.” He was well aware that some say, “But their sins are committed in time, they are only temporary”, to which he responds: “I admit it; but then the majesty of God, and also the justice which they have violated by their sins, are eternal. Justly, therefore, the memory of their iniquity does not perish.” The detractor again says, “But then the measure of punishment exceeds the measure of the trespass” to which Calvin responds: “It is intolerable blasphemy to hold the majesty of God in so little estimation, as not to regard the contempt of it as [requiring a punishment of less] greater consequence than the destruction of a single soul”.
Some sins against God can be paralleled to speeding tickets? What kind of estimation of the holiness of God does Mr. Thomas hold?
Let us also consider the words of 18th century Protestant Philosopher Theologian Jonathan Edwards, who gives good philosophical grounds for believing in the biblical teaching on eternal punishment:
“Every crime or fault deserves a greater or lesser punishment, in proportion to the crime. If any fault deserves punishment, then the greater the fault, the greater the punishment. If there be any such thing as a fault infinitely heinous, it will follow that it is just to inflict a punishment for it that is infinitely dreadful. In turn, our obligation to… honor, and obey any person is in proportion to that person’s… honorableness, and authority, for that is the very meaning of the words… if we say someone is more honorable than another, the meaning of the words is that he is one whom we are more obliged to honor. If we say anyone has great authority over us, it is the same as saying he has a great right to our subjection and obedience. God is a being… of infinite greatness, majesty, and glory; therefore he is infinitely honorable. He is infinitely exalted above the greatest potentates of the earth and the highest angels in heaven, and therefore He is infinitely more honorable than they. His authority over us is infinite, and His right to obedience is infinitely strong. He is infinitely worthy to be obeyed, and we have absolute, universal, and infinite dependence on Him. If there be any sin against God, it must be infinite evil… for it is a sin against an infinite being. And so it is an infinite evil… If people were guilty of only one sin, that sin is sufficient ground for their rejection and condemnation… [This should be sufficient for them to cry out,] ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner!’ But sinful people are full of sin, full of principles and acts of sin… [God’s mercies are] abused and frowns despised, mercy and justice and all the divine perfections trampled on. The honor of each person in the Trinity is trod in the dirt. Now if a single word or thought has so much evil in it as to deserve eternal destruction, how do they who are guilty of so much sin deserve to be eternally cast off and destroyed!”
One sin is an infinite crime against God. It is rebellion. It is casting God aside and declaring oneself master over our own lives, center of the universe, little god on the throne. Thus saying that any sin against God is the equivalent of a speeding ticket demonstrates the very malignant inability to honor God as God. Thus the Apostle Paul tells us that “the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God” (Romans 8:7). So Mr. Thomas, believing that the historic orthodox teaching on hell is wrong, then writes in his column that a God who would so punish would be “unjust”. For all intents and purposes he calls such a belief system “bad religion” and “a sham”. But he has bought into modern liberalism’s false theology, bought into the lie that man is the measure of all things. He thinks that such a God cannot be a loving God and yet, does he forget that against the backdrop of all that is said above that all deserve hell for their sins, God is indeed merciful and loving, because He sent His own Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin” (Romans 8:3, NASB). Our beloved John 3:16, stands against the backdrop of looming destruction for all who have turned away from God.
Remember the punishment prescribed by God in the Law of Moses for children who disobeyed and rebelled against their parents. How much more do we deserve for disobeying and rebelling against our holy eternal Almighty God?
“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:26-31, NIV).
Feel free to read my other columns at http://www.examiner.com/christian-perspectives-in-philadelphia/stephen-j-drain.
 This is my third column in response to Oliver Thomas’ column entitled Should believers fear Hell—and God? My first column in this series was entitled Should believers fear Hell—and God? A response. The second column was entitled “Hell” in the Old and New Testaments.
 “Perhaps the baldest of all fallacies, this is the device of every demagogue and every propagandist—an appeal to the emotions of the audience. The appeal to emotion is fallacious because, in place of evidence and rational argument, it relies on expressive language and other devices calculated to excite enthusiasm for or against some cause” (Introduction to Logic, Twelfth Edition, Irving M. Copi and Carl Cohen, copyright 2005 by Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ, page 127).
 See Matthew 8:11-12, Matthew 25:46, Mark 12:40, Romans 2:8-9, Jude 1:7, etc. Do a search on Jesus’ references to “weeping and gnashing of teeth”.
 See my column entitled Is HELL literally fire? At http://www.examiner.com/christian-perspectives-in-philadelphia/is-hell-literally-fire
 Peter Kreeft, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven (But Never Dreamed of Asking), copyright 1990 by Ignatius Press, San Francisco, page 233.
 C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, © 1946 by Macmillan Publishing Company, © renewed 1974, published by Touchstone, page 72.
 Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, © 1992 by R.C. Sproul, published by Tyndale, page 286. Biblical citation from Isaiah 33:10-14: “The sinners in Zionare terrified; trembling grips the godless: ‘Now will I arise,, says the LORD. ‘Now will I be exalted…. [But] You conceive chaff, you give birth to straw; your breath is a fire that consumes you. The peoples will be burned as if to lime; like cut thornbushes they will be set ablaze. You who are far away, hear what I have done; you who are near, acknowledge my power!’ The sinners in Zionare terrified; trembling grips the godless: ‘Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?’” (NIV).
 A phrase borrowed from Hebrews 10:29 in the NIV.
 “See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand” (Deuteronomy 32:39, NIV). “In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10, NIV). “[He is not]served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives life and breath and everything to everyone” (Acts 17:25).
 “For the one who obeys the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10). “[For] all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us…. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us” (1 john 1:8, 10).
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Second Book, chapter VIII, Section 59.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Third Book, Chapter XXV, Section 5.
 Jonathan Edwards, as quoted in His Redeeming Love: Stirring Messages from the Great Revivalist Jonathan Edwards, copyright 2001 by Servant Publications, compiled and edited by Judith Couchman and Lisa Marzano, pages 45-47.