Objection #2: “I agree that God is a just God. But wouldn’t it be unjust for Him to punish a finite sin for all eternity?”
This is a very common and compelling question. Some people reject the doctrine of hell because it seems unfathomable that God would torment someone in a literal, physical hell for all eternity, giving an infinite sentence for finite sins. There are others who accept the biblical teaching that hell is eternal, but just want help knowing why hell is eternal.
Most of us have no problem with the concept of retributive justice. The murderer and rapist are rightly sent to prison for decades. Many of us support the death penalty for certain crimes. We see that God has placed value upon human life and that when a person takes the life of another, his life should be taken (Gen9:6). An eye for an eye makes sense to the human mind. But how can any sin warrant an eternal hell?
I believe there are at least two good explanations. The first is that we simply do not have the capacity to rightly judge the sinfulness of sin. All of us have had others sin against us and all of us have sinned against others. In either case, our only frame of reference for understanding the offensiveness of that sin is in our capacity as fallen creatures. There is a very real sense in which it is impossible for us to really grasp the depravity of sin. That’s because we all sin all the time. We sin so easily and naturally that it seems normal, and in a way it is normal. It is normal in the sense that it flows from our nature. We are accustomed to sin.
My dad has been drinking black coffee for decades. He thinks it tastes good. This amazed me for years. I asked him if he’d always taken it black. He said yes, he didn’t want to mess with doctoring it up. I asked him if it tasted good from the very beginning. He said not at first, but he got used to it. Now it’s delicious.
A few years ago, I decided I was going to drink it black, too. That lasted about .5 seconds. It was rancid. It was difficult to imagine that my dad had no idea how bad that stuff tasted. So how is it possible that he drinks it black and doesn’t taste the bitterness? He’s been drinking it that way for decades. It’s normal to him. For those of us who don’t drink it black, he’s not a reliable gauge for the bitterness of anything.
Likewise, because of our own sinful natures and our immersion in a fallen world, none of us are reliable gauges for the objective sinfulness of sin and therefore for the reasonableness of the penalty for sin. We simply do not have the capacity to judge the sinfulness of sin the way an infinitely holy God can. Our understanding of sin is subjective; His is objective. Our sense of it is dulled. He sees it for what it really is. For that reason, His judgment is superior to ours and we should trust Him in that.
But not only is God’s judgment of the sinfulness of sin more reliable than ours, but His offense at sin is far more personal than ours. God is pure holiness, as we discussed in the opening post of this series. He is infinitely holy. Universal moral law is an expression of the character of God, so sin is not merely the transgression of an impersonal rule, but rather it is the violation of His very person. Further, any finite sin against Him is an infinitely offensive sin, not because the offender is infinite, but because the One offended is infinite – infinite in His separation from all that is sinful. And an infinite offense calls for an infinite punishment.
A second explanation for why hell is eternal is one that many of us may not have ever considered. When Adam fell, he plunged all mankind into a state of total depravity. Ephesians 2:1-3 tells us that the unsaved are dead in their trespasses and sin. By nature they follow after the world, the devil, and their own sinful flesh. Romans 8:7-8 notes the inability of the unbelieving to obey God. Romans 6:17-18 teaches that prior to salvation, man is enslaved to sin. So what does this have to do with the eternality of hell?
Well, what is the only thing that can free us from sin? What is the only thing that can enable us to obey God? The God-ordained, Christ-bought, Spirit-applied work of salvation that comes by grace through repentance and faith in Christ Jesus. Nothing else. So all those who are consigned to hell as a penalty for sin will continue to be totally depraved. Hell will not turn them into saints or give them the ability to stop sinning. They will be continuing to earn God’s wrath for all eternity. The sinful thoughts, the sinful desires, the blasphemous slander against God will not be purged from their nature by hell. If anything, it will intensify as God removes his restraining grace from them.
The eternality of hell is a terrible thought, but it makes the Savior all the more precious. By His sacrifice, we have been spared the worst fate possible. May the truth of this doctrine move us to proclaim His gospel with urgency – time is running out for those around us who have not surrendered to Him.