Is it Fair for God to Punish People Eternally in Hell?
The notion of hell is not a popular idea. Those who regard themselves as scientifically informed and morally enlightened, usually regard hell as something that belongs to the superstitious and religious past. For these atheists, agnostics, and “progressive Christians” it might be understandable how people in the Medieval Era could succumb to such nonsense, but why anyone would take hell seriously today, is simply baffling.
Sometimes this attitude is simply absorbed from society in a passive way. Many people do not take hell seriously because they just don’t know anyone else who takes it seriously. Why get worked up about something when no one else finds it credible? But for those who do stop to think about hell, they often object to it based on it’s perceived lack of moral credibility. How is it, they reason, that God could punish someone for all eternity when no one has done anything worthy of such punishment? A generally accepted moral principle is that the punishment should fit the crime. Yet what could anyone do that was so heinous as to deserve an eternity in hell? Certainly some evils are worse than other evils and they could therefore deserve a greater punishment. But what could anyone do that was infinitely evil and therefore worthy of an infinite punishment? Perhaps a sadistic mass murder might deserve to be in hell for a very, very long time. Maybe the devil, as the epitome of all evil, deserves to be there for even longer; perhaps trillions upon trillions of years. But even this pales in comparison to all of eternity. Given that the Bible describes the devil as a finite being of limited power, how could he possibly commit an infinite wrong worthy of infinite punishment? There hasn’t even been an infinite amount of time in which he could do an infinite number of wrongs. Not even the devil seems worthy of infinite punishment.
Another Moral Principle
Given this very reasonable objection, what should be made of the Bible’s teaching that the suffering in hell will be eternal? For example, in Matthew 25:46 Jesus says that those who lived in disobedience to him “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (NIV) How can this be inspired by a God who is perfectly just, all knowing, and entirely good?
What people fail to take into account is that God’s perfect goodness includes not just love but also justice. God is perfectly just and therefore his justice takes into account all of the relevant moral factors. We are imperfect, limited in knowledge, and do not appreciate how limited we are. Unsurprisingly, there is another important factor that most people miss when they make their moral evaluation of hell. The severity of a wrong is determined by, not just the type of wrong done, but also by who (or what) the wrong is done against.
To understand this point further consider the following. The vast majority of people regard murder as a great evil. But if someone kills a mosquito or a bacterium, almost everyone recognizes that that is not evil. In fact, many people would even consider it to be good. On the other hand, people recognize that killing a dog or a horse is quite different. Depending on who you ask, the moral status of this act will vary. Some people think it is always wrong while others regard it as morally neutral given the right circumstances. But despite this variation, virtually everyone can recognize that it is more serious to kill dogs and horses in comparison to killing mosquitoes and bacteria. Lastly, compare these acts to the murder of an innocent human being. There is certainly a vast difference between killing bacteria and murdering humans. What is this difference based in? The act is the same - killing. The moral difference lies in who the act is done against. The more valuable the being, the greater the moral severity in killing.
It is this moral principle that people forget when considering hell. In order to appreciate what punishment people deserve, we need to keep in mind that anyone condemned to hell is sent there because of his or her sin against a being of far greater value than any bacteria, mosquito, dog, horse or human. Every created being, including humans, are of finite value. But God is a unique being of infinite value and infinite worth. Therefore when we sin against him we are committing an infinite wrong. And an infinite wrong deserves an infinite punishment. Hence hell’s eternal duration is entirely appropriate. Denying this fact means that we are denying the infinite worth of God.
Failure to Worship
There is another objection that often arises once people realize this other moral principle. This other objection is more of a question. It asks, how have we done anything against God? As an all-powerful and all-knowing spiritual being, we can’t kill God, or rape him, or steal his money, or physically abuse him. Since he is perfect, we can't harm him in any way. And given that we can’t harm him, how can we possibly sin against him so that we are worthy of any sort of punishment?
It’s true that we can’t hurt God in the same way we can hurt other human beings, but we can harm God in another way. The God of the Bible is passionate for his glory. And since he is passionate for glory, he cares about whether people worship him as he deserves. Worship has many facets to it but it includes giving the appropriate praise, honour and thanks. When we fail to praise, honour and thank God, we are wronging him. This might seem strange but it is not that different from us. We also care whether we receive the appropriate amount of praise, honour and thanks. For example, if a woman sings beautifully before a packed audience, and people refuse to applaud her as she deserves, she is wronged. Whatever the audience's motivation - be it racism, or sexism, or some other reason - the woman deserves the appropriate amount of praise that matches the quality of her performance. If she does not receive it, she is wronged.
The same thing is true for someone who should be thanked. If someone buys you a coffee, or gives you a car, or saves your life, he deserves an appropriate amount of thanks in return. If he doesn’t receive it, he’s wronged. Lastly, people in authority over us - teachers, professors, bosses, parents, kings and queens - all deserve the appropriate amount of honour and respect. When they don’t receive what they deserve, they are also wronged. People deserve the appropriate amount of praise, honour and thanks. When we fail to give that to them, we are wronging them. This moral principle also applies to God. As the most fantastic being in all of existence, he deserves much more than a round of applause for singing well. He deserves our highest and greatest praise. As the source of every good thing we experience, he deserves our highest and greatest thanks. And as the being with the greatest authority, he deserves the highest honour and respect. God deserves the highest praise, greatest thanks and the most honour. In other words, God deserves our worship. When we fail to give that to him - as we all have - we wrong him.
How serious is this wrong? How serious is it when we fail to worship God as he deserves? This failure might not seem like a big deal. When we fail to praise, thank or honour someone, it does not seem very serious. And if someone wanted to punish us eternally as a result, we would regard them as moral monsters. The punishment would be completely disproportionate to the wrong committed. However, we need to keep in mind our previously established moral principle. The severity of a wrong is determined, not just by the act committed, but also by who the wrong is done against; the more valuable the being, the more serious the wrong. And since God is infinitely valuable, a wrong against him is an infinite wrong. So our failure to worship God is not some mere minor infraction. It is the worst possible thing we could do. It is worse than torturing and murdering hundreds of people. It is worse than committing a genocide or a holocaust. It is more evil than we can imagine. And therefore we deserve to be punished in hell for all eternity. Hell is not an excessive punishment. It is entirely appropriate. We have a hard time accepting this because we don’t appreciate just how great God is. He is more glorious, more wonderful, than we can possibly imagine. He is infinitely valuable. To deny the justice of hell, is to deny the infinite value and glory of God.
There is more to our sin against God than what we have examined here. But our sin does include our failure to give God our greatest praise, thanks and honour. The Bible explains that all of us are guilty before God. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). So how can we possibly be made right before God? How can we possibly escape the fires of hell? Given that we have all sinned against God and have therefore all committed this infinite evil, what hope is there? We cannot make up for our infinite evil by doing a finite amount of good. We can never do enough nice things to enough human beings in order to make things right. Finite goods, done a finite number of times, can never equal an infinite wrong. Our only hope is for an infinite good that can make up for our infinite wrong. That is essentially what Jesus has done for us in his death on the cross.
Modern people don’t like the idea of hell. It strikes them as barbaric and morally repugnant. What could anyone possibly do so as to deserve eternal hell? Not even the devil seems to deserve that much punishment. But hell does make sense when we remember that the severity of a moral wrong is determined not just by the act done but also by who the wrong is done against. God is a being of infinite value and therefore a wrong against him is an infinite wrong. All of us have wronged God because we have failed to worship him as he deserves. So all of us deserve to go to hell for all of eternity. That is the bad news; the good news is that God has made it possible for us to be forgiven and restored to him. All we need to do is accept God’s gift of salvation and repent of our sins against him.