How is an Eternity of Hell a Just Punishment for Sin?
Hell is one of the most controversial beliefs in Christianity. Many people find it hard to accept the idea that people’ sins and wickedness have eternal consequences. They would rather believe that Hell is a modern invention, or perhaps a poetic image that represents something not so fearsome. “But when we look at the Bible, we see that it certainly describes Hell as a real place.”
The first indications that Hell is a real place occur in the Old Testament. Now, the OT can be confusing, since the Hebrew word for Hell is “Sheol.” Sheol refers to the resting place of the dead and doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning as Hell. Sheol is used to describe the afterlife of both the righteous and the unrighteous in Ecclesiastes 9:2 and Psalm 89:48. So the word “Sheol” by itself does not indicate that Hell is real. However, the context surrounding the many uses of Sheol in the Old Testament, suggest that there are two separate Sheols: one for the godly and one for the wicked. For example, Psalm 139:8, seems to distinguish between Heaven and Sheol. Daniel 12:2 describes a coming day of judgment in which some will be judged “to shame and everlasting contempt.” Psalm 9:17 explains that “the wicked shall return to Sheol, [alongside] all the nations that forget God.” So while the details of Hell are not clearly described until the New Testament, the Old Testament does indicate that there is a place of eternal judgment for the wicked.
Many people believe that the only thing Jesus ever talked about was love and forgiveness. It might surprise them to learn that Jesus spoke far more about Hell than Heaven! Jesus provided the most striking imagery and powerful warnings about Hell. For example, in Matt. 3:12 and Mark 9:43, He described Hell as an unquenchable fire, and in Matt. 13:41-42 as a “blazing furnace” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth. Not only did Jesus say that Hell is a dreadful inferno, but He also explained that Hell is an awful darkness (Matt. 8:12, 22:13). The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16:19-31 reveals (alongside other passages such as Matt. 25:46) that Hell is an eternal torment without relief. Jesus’ many warnings about Hell show that Hell is a real place to be avoided at all costs.
Some argue that Jesus’ words do not describe reality, but are just symbols. However, even if this were true, it does not make Hell any less awful or fearful. As Christian author R.C. Sproul explains, “if these images [of Hell] are indeed symbols, then we must conclude that the reality is worse than the symbol suggests. The function of symbols is to point beyond themselves to a higher or more intense state of actuality than the symbol itself can contain.”
It is only when we put together all of what Scripture says, that we get a complete picture of Hell. Hell is a lake of fire and darkness. More importantly, Hell is also eternal separation from God. The Bible tells us that God is Love itself. He is the source of all that is good, beautiful, and joyful (James 1:7). The most amazing description of Heaven is that it is eternal life with God (Heb. 9:24, 1 Cor. 13:12). But in Hell, God and all His goodness are barred from the wicked. Hell is the absence of God’s presence and the eternal wage earned by the lives of the unrighteous (2 Thess. 1:8-9).
Who are the unrighteous that will be punished with Hell? Scripture says that no one is righteous (Rom. 3:10, 23). Every man and woman who have walked this earth have sinned and need a Savior. Only Jesus Christ, the Son of God who became a man, lived a sinless life. Even though we cannot become righteous through our own efforts, Jesus died and rose again as payment for our sins. The Bible states that “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:18) Everyone has been given the opportunity to respond to the free gift of Salvation that God has provided. A person may shun God and refuse His love, while preferring their own wickedness instead. However, when they do, they ultimately reject His presence and will spend eternity in Hell.
So how is an eternity in Hell a just punishment for a lifetime of sin? This is perhaps the wrong way to look at the issue. People often think of Hell as a punishment for individual actions, as if they are going to Hell because of small sins like stealing a candy bar from a grocery store. This idea misses the point entirely. No one is going to Hell “just because” they stole a candy bar. Instead, when we sin it reveals our unholy and sinful nature. Hell is a punishment not as much for what we do as for who we are. The “small sins” we commit demonstrate that we are drawn to sin, are not perfect people, and cannot live in the presence of a holy, perfect God. But God, in His amazing love, has provided a path for forgiveness and transformation through faith in Jesus Christ. Even so, many people, even after hearing the Gospel message, reject Jesus’ gift of salvation. Some lie to themselves and believe that they are “good enough” to get into Heaven. Others see their sin but reject God’s free gift of salvation, believing instead that through their own good works or religious activity, they can earn God’s favor. But the Bible is clear that no one is “good enough” (Rom. 3:10) and no one can earn their way into heaven (Isa. 64:6, Gal. 2:16). These people deceive themselves about their sinful nature and their inability to “earn” heaven. They choose to reject God and His saving mercy. And that’s why Hell is a just punishment. Hell isn’t as concerned about a lifetime of sin as it is about the eternal life of a sinner who refuses to accept God’s mercy and allow God to change that person’s heart and nature. The people who reject God’s mercy reject God Himself, and so are allowed to live apart from God for eternity. But those who recognize that they are tainted by sin and have faith God’s grace and the saving work of Jesus Christ will have eternal life with Him.
Those who would like to read more on this topic are encouraged to check out:
--- ONLINE RESOURCES ---
Bible.org – What the Bible Says about Hell
Frank Turek – Why God Sends People to Hell
Compelling Truth – Is Hell Fair?
Apologetics Press – The Goodness of God and an Eternal Hell.
--- PRINT RESOURCES ---
Peter Kreeft – Between Heaven and Hell
Stanley Gundry and William Crockett – Four Views on Hell