I believe in eternal punishment. This truth is taught in both Old and New Testaments. It is not an outdated Old Testament concept which is now outmoded or irrelevant. This truth is timeless and fundamental, underpinning the moral universe we inhabit. At the heart of the revelation of eternal punishment in both Testaments is God Himself, revealed as the One whose is the right to judge the world, and whose standards of righteousness stand in contradistinction to the changeable legal codes of nations or the inconsistent moral codes of His creatures. The Lord Jesus Himself taught this truth.
The Bibles revelation of eternal punishment can withstand every attack that any dare launch against it. Often virulent opposition comes from those who darken Gods wisdom with "words without knowledge" and in so doing reprove God (Job 38.2; 40.2). Over the centuries those attacks have originated in many quarters, as men have put revealed truth in the dock to face a variety of charges. Often those charges are framed as questions.
Is it not unjust of God to punish eternally?
Underlying the questioning of Gods justice lies a series of unsubstantiated assumptions.
First, that sin is not a serious enough matter to deserve eternal punishment. Where the gravity of sin is not understood there are voices angrily decrying the severity of the penalty for sinning for a period 70 or 80 years. They dare to ask, "If the punishment is eternal, does the punishment fit the crime?".
Second, that somehow after a period of suffering in hell or the lake of fire, the sufferer will repent. However, rarely is evidence advanced to substantiate the claim. The Bible provides evidence to the contrary. When in his visions John saw the fourth bowl (or vial) poured out upon the sun, the angel had the authority to "scorch men with fire". Men suffered greatly, yet the sufferers blasphemed the name of God " and they repented not" (Rev 16.8-9). When the fifth bowl was poured, darkness ensued and men "gnawed their tongues for pain, And blasphemed the God of heaven and repented not of their deeds" (Rev 16.10-11). The language of Scripture leaves no doubt that the sufferers were not ignorant of the source of those events John saw in his vision. Nonetheless they blasphemed the name of God and the God of heaven under whose hand they suffered grievously. Each of the two cases cited declare that they "repented not". Remorse there may be in hell and the lake of fire, but not repentance.
Third, that somehow a sufferers heart, long hardened by sin and selfishness, will be able of its own volition to love God. It is assumed that the innate hatred, or at least distrust, of God could be transformed at will into love for God. If the revelation of Gods love for the world, bringing with it the offer of eternal life to the perishing, leaves a man or woman unmoved, why should any assume that the experience of the justice of God would arouse a yearning to trust God? The Bible shows clearly the link between the work of the Holy Spirit and that radical change of heart some envisage could take place amid the torments of hell and the lake of fire without the Spirits work. Perhaps the more thoughtful may have reached the false conclusion that the Holy Spirits work extends beyond this life. In such minds the "great gulf fixed", of which the Lord Jesus spoke, is not fixed eternally (Lk 16.26).
Is the punishment of the sinner really everlasting?
There are many who resist fiercely any suggestion that God has standards that men ignore at their peril. There are others, who recognise that God may have standards, but they expect God to lower those standards to accommodate what they see as human foibles. God is righteous, and cannot deny Himself (2 Tim 2.13): His judgments are true and righteous (Rev 16.7), so His standards are absolutely righteous, and He is true to Himself. The sinner who dies in his sins will perish eternally.
The argument is sometimes advanced that the phrase "everlasting punishment" only occurs at Matthew 25.46 in a context where, it is claimed, the Greek word translated "everlasting" could mean a measurable period. The context of the verse sets "everlasting punishment" in contrast with "life eternal". Note that the same Greek word is translated "eternal" and "everlasting" in that verse. If punishment is not for ever and ever, then "life eternal" is not for ever. But we know from other Scriptures that the life the Lord Jesus offered is everlasting (Jn 3.16) and the salvation He provides is eternal (Heb 5.9), as is the redemption found in Him (Heb 9.12). At Matthew 25.41, in the chapter where we encounter the phrase "everlasting punishment", the Lord Jesus Himself speaks of "everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels". That place of "everlasting fire" is entitled "the lake of fire and brimstone" at Revelation 20.10, which passage states that torment is "day and night for ever and ever"! We conclude that the Lords teaching at Matthew 25.46 declares unambiguously that the punishment in view is eternal.
Would a God of love punish anyone eternally?
Would it not be wholly uncharacteristic of God, who is portrayed in the Word of God as a God of love, to punish with eternal punishment? No more telling description of God is to be found than that given in John 3.16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life". No greater demonstration of His love could be sought than the giving of His Son. But that same passage declares equally emphatically: "He that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him" (Jn 3.36).
As the wise woman of Tekoa told Joab, He has devised "means, that his banished be not expelled from him" (2 Sam 14.14). It required that He give His only begotten Son. The proof that He is a God of love is that He "spared not his own Son but delivered him up for us all" (Rom 8.32). The proof that He is a righteous, holy God who must punish sin is Calvary where He "laid on him (His Son) the iniquity of us all" (Is 53.6). I believe that God loves the sinner but will punish eternally the unrepentant sinner who spurns His offer of salvation.
What the Lord Jesus taught
The reader of the New Testament must have noticed that the Lord Jesus teaching addressed the questions of sin and its consequences. He spoke of some who would die in their sins and who would not come to the place to which He was going. He added that if they believed not on Him, they would die in their sins (Jn 8.21,24). He was to return to the Father after His resurrection, and therefore those who died in their sins would not be in heaven; and to that unambiguous sentence of separation from God and Christ there was appended no time-limiting clause. We know from our Lords teaching that there will be degrees of punishment, but He did not speak of different lengths of sentence. In a parable He compared many stripes with few (Lk 12.46-48). He also compared the severity of sentence on Tyre and Sidon, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Sodom and Capernaum on the day of judgment (Mt 11.21-24), but He did not speak of one suffering longer than the other.
The Lord taught about hell. Indeed in Luke 16, a passage that some mistakenly think to be a parable, He told of an actual incident involving a rich man lifting up his eyes in torment. He also revealed that there was One who had power to kill and "after to cast into hell" (Lk 12.5). No clause relating to early release is appended to those statements. The Lord also unfolded how the dead would be raised. Those who are not raised at the resurrection of life will be part of the resurrection of damnation (Jn 5.29). Hell will give up its dead and they will be "judged every man according to their works" (Rev 20.12-15). I believe in eternal punishment as revealed in the Bible and taught by the Lord Jesus Himself.
To be continued.