Faith or Fanaticism: The Credibility of Eternal Punishment

Is Sin Really That Serious?

Even the most rabid libertarian structures his life on the system of reward and punishment built into nature. Although he may choose to dispense with any reward and punishment system in raising his child, he pursues the reward of continued life by eating appropriate foods. He avoids the punishment of terminating life by not eating poison. If there were no consistency of cause and effect, we would randomly stumble toward annihilation of the planet. On one day, sterilizing a baby’s feeding bottle might preserve him from germs. On the next day, it might take the child’s life. In the physical realm, we recognize the necessity of both a positive and negative system of cause and effect.

If no concept of reward and punishment existed in the moral realm, God would be removed from His throne. If, on the one hand, every act (whether consistent with God’s character or not) had a beneficial outcome, God would not be holy On the other hand, if every act (whether consistent with God’s character or not) had a harmful outcome, God would not be good.

If, then, we recognize the value of a system of reward and punishment, let me pose a series of questions, addressing two basic issues. First, is justice – a fair system of reward and punishment – possible? Second, what punishments are appropriate?

Is Justice Possible?

When ruffians roam the streets randomly victimizing the innocent, is there no inner voice that says, “This must be stopped?” Can a man of means and charisma viciously end the lives of two others and continue to live comfortably without any public outcry? Can two men further their private agenda by blasting millions of dollars worth of public property and incidently snuffing out over 160 lives, randomly scaring scores of families for life, without someone asserting that there must be justice?

History records many instances of benevolent rule in the hands of a strong leader, yet the general lesson of past history is that power corrupts men and that a craving for power drives corrupt men. Power concentrated in the hands of a man or a totalitarian state has endangered, rather than ensured, justice. Decentralized power placed in the hands of the governed is now having its run at a place in history. If we concede that democracy is the best form of government that man can devise, are we satisfied with justice as it now exists? Is it an unfair generalization to state that society consoles itself with the thought that the system is not perfect, but it is the best we can do?

Is idealism dead? Has the humanist arrived at the conclusion that the only alternative is unacceptable? Or shall we who worship the God who embodies moral absolutes concede that His character shall never be vindicated and His universe is beyond His power to regulate?

Justice is only possible in the hand of a sovereign and righteous God. God has stated, “He will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:31). His holy character and the sordid path of history demand that He carry out justice. His holy character and His sovereignty give Him the right to carry out justice. His supreme power uniquely enables Him to carry out justice, He must, He should, He can an He will punish sin!

What Punishments are Appropriate?

Recognizing that God alone is capable of administering justice, we must allow Him to choose what is just as a penalty for sin. And He has already disclosed the penalty. As unacceptable to the modern mind as it may be, the Scriptures declare that Sinners “shall go away into everlasting punishment” (Matt 25:46).

John R.W. Stott, noted evangelical theologian, claims that his statement in recent years was merely wondering out loud about the eventual annihilation of sinners. Suddenly men who claim to acknowledge the authority of the Bible have poured out of their closets to jump on the bandwagon which once carried only modernists and cultists. These evangelicals have joined hands to teach that annihilation, not eternal, conscious punishment, awaits the unbeliever. What does the Bible teach?

What else can be the meaning of Jude’s statement that “Sodom and Gomorrah … are [not were] set forth for an example, suffering [not suffered, but are suffering] the vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 7)? Can it be possible that those who worship the Beast have been annihilated when the Scriptures say, “the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night” (Rev 14:11)? The story of the Rich Man (Luke 16:1931) is a factual account, complete with the names of two of the individuals involved. Was the rich man consciously enduring punishment when he said, “I am tormented in this flame” (Luke 16:24)? Was there any prospect of an end of this conscious torment when Abraham told him the “great gulf” was fixed? No one would ever give him relief by going there; no one could ever grant him release to come from there verse 26). Why did the Lord say that living without an eye or hand or foot is preferable to being in “hell fire” (Mark 9:43-48)? Could He have exaggerated when He reiterated that “their worm dieth not?” The word “worm” is figurative, but He clearly implied that “their worm” is a personal anguish that will never “die”. Is annihilation consistent with the Lord’s repeated refrain linking this personal, unending anguish with “the fire that never shall be quenched?” Just reviewing these passages which are so clear in teaching eternal, conscious punishment is overwhelming to heart and mind. Those we love are rushing to this incomparable, unthinkable tragedy.

But why such an extreme and severe punishment from a loving God? Perhaps the reason so many try to rule out eternal, conscious punishment is because of failure to understand the offensiveness of sin to God. Every sin defies the authority of God by saying that man has the right to decide what is beneficial for himself. Every sin denies the goodness of the character of God. If sin is defined by the character of God, not merely by an arbitrary choice God has made, then every choice to sin says that sin is good and therefore that God is not good. Every sin displays an inveterate hatred toward God. Sin rent the heart of God with the agony of Calvary. Sinners need to know this and saints need to be reminded of this: sin is so offensive, abominable and destructive in God’s view, that nothing else is an appropriate penalty but eternal, conscious punishment.

Shortly after a pipe bombing in Centennial Olympic Park Atlanta, marred the 1996 Olympics, a radio commentator was extolling the virtues of the Olympic Games. He opined that they represent the best of athletic achievement, endeavor and devotion; they showcase the ideal of global harmony, as athletes from vastly different cultures compete in an atmosphere of mutual respect; by their long tradition, they form a link with what is good in the past. He reviewed the tragic killings at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and then expressed his revulsion toward the person who so senselessly, callously and violently dared to spoil such an exalted event as the Olympics. He cryptically closed his commentary with a call for damnation on such an individual, “whoever he may be.” Because the bomber desecrated such a special, significant and unique event, the commentator deemed him worthy of damnation.

Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki who presided over 0.J. Simpson’s civil trial denied a defense request for a new trial. He considered the $33.5 million judgment “reasonable and not excessive.” Why? “The reprehensibility of this defendant is without a doubt most grievous and beyond comparison.” And what shall we say of the sinner whose sin has stained God’s world with the blood of His Son, has attempted to besmirch the pristine character of God and has affronted the very throne of God? “Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy…?” (Heb 10:29).