The Justice of Eternity

Let’s get right to it: it is unpleasant to think about Hell. Everlasting emptiness, eternal separation from God, no hope of escape. It’s not hard for us, though, to imagine Hell as a fitting place for Earth’s most depraved souls. Of course the dictator and serial killer deserve it. But me, with my little everyday errors in judgment? That’s harder to square. Even if we accept that we choose Hell when we turn away from God on Earth, an eternal punishment may seem unjust. Why should temporary evil be met with permanent consequence?

We should first establish that an eternal Hell is, in fact, what the Bible describes. There’s no use considering Hell’s justice if Scripture claims something else entirely. Daniel 12: 2-3 tells us that “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” And the Gospel of Matthew describes an “eternal fire prepared for the devil and His angels… And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”[1] We know Hell isn’t annihilation but rather ongoing, conscious punishment.[2] As much as we would rather ignore it, an eternal Hell is exactly what the Bible describes.

This quickly becomes a sticking point for both the Christian and the merely curious. How could a just God thrust people into eternal punishment? To understand this, we’ll need to understand more about God’s nature. We can’t say “I can’t believe Sarah would do such a thing” without first knowing Sarah and what we would expect from her.

The God in whom Christians believe has many attributes— immutability, total power, complete knowledge,  but most of all, Scripture describes Him as holy.[3]Holiness, as we might expect of an attribute so central to the nature of God, is somewhat elusive to our understanding. God is called “The Holy One” because “the sum of all moral excellency is found in Him. He is absolute Purity, unsullied even by the shadow of sin.”[4] 1 John 1:5 tells us that  “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all”[5]and Habakkuk says of God, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.”[6]God’s holiness is the absolute opposite of moral blemish or defilement. He is not only morally perfect, but also perfectly loving, perfectly wise, and perfectly merciful. As the complete embodiment of light and perfection, God cannot stand sin.[7] It follows, then, that He must address it swiftly and completely. 

Aside from Hell, another source of doubt in God’s justice is the philosophical “problem of evil”:  how could the evil and suffering in the world be compatible with the existence of a benevolent God? If a God like that really existed, how could He allow innocent people to be raped, killed, bought and sold? How could He allow pedophiles and slavers and engineers of genocide to get away with their deeds? Taken in isolation, it’s easy to see how the problem of evil raises doubts about God’s ultimate goodness. And, taken in isolation, the existence of Hell could raise these doubts as well. We must recognize, though, that evil and punishment do not exist in isolation they are inextricably linked. In fact, Hell is God’s just answer to the problem of evil. It is acceptable for Earthly evil to go unpunished and good unrewarded because there is a reckoning afterward.  

Were God not fully averse to the wickedness of this world, His justice, mercy, and love would be blemished and incomplete. Without a complete opposition to sin and a punishment for it, God would tacitly condone evil on earth and deny justice to the innocent and oppressed. Without Hell, He would condone my own dishonesty, greed, and spite. And His most loving and merciful deed— sending His only Son to die in our place would mean very little.

Even if punishment is just, why eternal punishment for finite and temporary sins? First of all, we must not mistake eternal for infinite. No one will bear punishment for an infinite number of offences only for those which they have committed.[8]Hell will not be the same for everyone who goes; it is proportionate to deeds done. Further, as R. Alcorn points out in If God is Good

“It may take five seconds to murder a child, but five seconds of punishment would hardly bring appropriate justice. Crimes committed against an infinitely holy God cannot be paid for in finite measures of time.”

It is the depth of our sin, not the time it took to carry it out, that justifies the length of our punishment.

When we hear about God punishing sin, we want to think of it as needless condemnation; that blows our harmless flaws out of proportion. In reality, though, we do deserve the punishment. God created humankind to be holy like Him and it is we who chose to step away and choose so every day.

Why an eternal Hell? Because the gravity of our sin is much greater than we understand. For God to address this sin is a confirmation of His merciful and just nature, not an embarrassing anomaly for an otherwise-pretty-nice God. We, as sinners, tend to dislike this possibility of negative consequences. People who deserve penalty generally do. We would like God to give us an instant acquittal from all the base and corrupt things we have ever done, thought, or said but we may choose this by choosing Christ. He is the one acceptable alternative to our own eternal separation from God; dying the death we deserve, He has taken our punishment for us by being separated from God on the cross.

What we truly don’t deserve but what we are nonetheless offered  is an eternity with the Light of Lights, cleared of darkness and becoming lights ourselves.[10]


[1]  Matt. 25:41, 46. See also 2 Thess. 1:9, Mark 9:48, Rev. 14:11; 20:10.

[2]  see Matt. 25:46, Rev. 20

[3] Charnock, Stephen. Several Discourses Upon The Existence and Attributes Of God. London:   Newman, 1682.

[4] Pink, A. W. Attributes of God. S.l.: Reformed Church Publications, 2015.

[5] ESV

[6] 1:13, NIV

[7] Prov. 15:26

[8] see Rev. 20:12-13; Matt. 12:36

[9] Alcorn, Randy C. If God is good. Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2010. 

[10]See John 8:12, Ephesians 5:8-9

Sharon Christner is a junior in the College studying Cognitive Science and English. She loves vocal music, free food, and a good allegory.

Discussion

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