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Why Would God Punish Finite, Temporal Crimes in an Eternal Hell?

240I was interviewed recently on a large Los Angeles radio station about the existence of Hell. One caller objected to the duration of punishment in Hell. From his perspective, the idea our temporal, finite sin on earth warrants an eternal punishment of infinite torment in Hell was troubling, at the very least. The punishment does not seem to fit the crime; in fact, the disproportionate penalty makes God seem petty and vindictive, doesn’t it? Why would God torture infinitely those who have only sinned finitely? I think it’s important to define the nature of Hell and sin before our discussion of the eternal nature of punishment can have any meaning or significance. Objections related to the eternal nature of Hell result from a misunderstanding of four principles and terms: Objections related to the eternal nature of Hell result from a misunderstanding of four principles and terms Click To Tweet

We Fail to Understand the Meaning of Spiritual “Torment”
The Bible says those who are delivered into Hell will be tormented, and the degree to which they will suffer is described in dramatic, illustrative language. But, the scripture never describes Hell as a place where God or His angels are actively “torturing” the souls of the rebellious. “Torture” is the sadistic activity that is often perpetrated for the mere joy of it. “Torment” results from a choice on the part of the person who finds himself (or herself) suffering the consequences. One can be in constant torment over a decision made in the past, without being actively tortured by anyone.

We Fail to Understand the Insignificance of Sin’s “Duration”
If someone embezzles $5.00 a week from their employer’s cash register they will have stolen $260.00 over the course of a year. If they’re caught at the end of this time, they would still only be guilty of a misdemeanor in the State of California (based on the total amount of loss). Although the crime took a year to commit, the perpetrator wouldn’t spend much (if any) time in jail. On the other hand, a murder can take place in the blink of an eye and the resulting punishment will be life in prison (or perhaps the death penalty). The duration of the crime clearly has little or nothing to do with the duration of the penalty.

We Fail to Understand the Magnitude of God’s “Authority”
If your sister catches you lying about your income last year, you might lose her respect. If the IRS catches you lying about your income last year, the resulting punishment will be far more painful. What’s the difference here? It certainly isn’t the crime. Instead, we recognize the more authoritative the source of the code, rule or law, the greater the punishment for those who are in violation. If God is the Highest Authority, we should expect that violations of His “laws” would result in significant punishment(s).

We Fail to Understand the Depth of Our “Sin”
Finally, it’s important to remember the nature of the crime that eventually leads one to Hell. It’s not the fact you kicked your dog in 1992. It’s not the fact you had evil thoughts about your teacher in 1983. The crime that earns us a place in Hell is our rejection of the true, living, eternal God. The rejection of God’s forgiveness is not finite. People who reject Jesus have rejected Him completely. They have rejected Him as an ultimate, final mortal decision. God has the right (and obligation) to judge them with an appropriate punishment. To argue that God’s punishment does not fit our crime is to underestimate our crime. The Bible describes Hell as a place where those who have rejected God will suffer the torment of their decision. Click To Tweet

The Bible describes Hell as a place where those who have rejected God will suffer the torment of their decision. It’s an appropriate punishment given the magnitude of God’s ultimate authority and the mortal opportunities for each of us to choose otherwise in this life.

For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.

J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case ChristianityGod’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.

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J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured cold-case homicide detective, popular national speaker and best-selling author. He continues to consult on cold-case investigations while serving as a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He is also an Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, and a faculty member at Summit Ministries. He holds a BA in Design (from CSULB), an MA in Architecture (from UCLA), and an MA in Theological Studies (from Gateway Seminary).

11 Comments

11 Comments

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  7. Sue King

    September 3, 2020 at 12:31 pm

    Was Jesus lying then when He said in John 3:16 that
    those who believe in him will not perish.

    • vince

      September 24, 2020 at 3:27 pm

      If people would stop taking verse 16 out of context they will see that in verse 15 Jesus is speaking, in verse 16-21 these are the comments of the writer (whoever he was because he wasn’t John). The commenter said believe, Jesus said REPENT.

      Jesus also said “On that day, many will say LORD, LORD… and I will say depart from me worker of iniquity I never knew you”. And sadly that’s gonna be a whole lot of “believers” that think they’re Christian.

  8. Hello Fellow Christian

    September 17, 2020 at 3:51 am

    Please reconsider this article for this ignores parts of the scriptures where Hell is described to be a real place of torment with fire = burning (eternal)

    and In Matthew 13:42, Jesus says: “And shall cast them into a FURNACE OF FIRE: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
    In Matthew 25:41, Jesus says: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting FIRE,. . .”
    Revelation 20:15 says, ” And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the LAKE OF FIRE.”
    Mark 9:46, Jesus Christ says about hell: “Where THEIR WORM dies not, and the fire is not quenched.”

  9. Gordon

    December 19, 2020 at 1:18 pm

    Calling Tartarus a consequence and not a punishment is unbiblical. It’s just wiggling around and trying to redraw the fact that it is a sentence, a judgement, and a punishment made by God. He is under no obligation to punish: he has every right to purgate, destroy, or redeem us, but he decides to subject us to infinite torment and indifference to us. This is explicitly repeated that God does this to us for not obeying, if eonian destruction is eternal pain.

    It is not hard to argue then that torment is indeed torture when it a punishment. If God denies me his presence or love, what difference is that from torturing a prisoner by putting them in solitary confinement for life, or denying food just enough to keep him on the brink of starvation? In the same way, in this theory of hell, God is sustaining our souls infinitely, but sustaining them in pain.

    While the argument of duration is valid, it does not fully address the unsaid question of result. The results of sin are finite while we are on earth. Even an act of rape is healed after the victim is resurrected. God alone decides whom he will avenge, correct, or forgive. And according to the book of Job, he is completely unaccountable for this decision.

    It’s also not defining what it means to reject God. If I’m lied-to about Jesus all my life, am I really rejecting him? The people of Nineveh couldn’t tell, in God’s merciful hyperbole, “their right from left;” meaning they were so deceived that they didn’t know right from wrong.
    If I were taught to believe that Satan is the messiah and Jesus is the devil, and I follow Jesus’ commandments under Satan’s name, am I rejecting Jesus?
    The most unfair part of this theology is original sin.
    The Psalmist wrote that God “knitted me together in my mother’s womb,” and that “I was guilty from birth.” God arranged my birth with this sinful nature; how am I committing an infinite offense for following my nature?
    For these reasons, I suspect we are misreading the nature of the afterlife, and that, vecause God alone is immortal, and much of the description of Tartarus is of destruction, and some as a refinery, that the Lake of Fire is either destructive, purgative, or both.
    How can we reject God when we are deceived?

  10. Randy

    March 24, 2022 at 10:02 am

    Psalm 139:13 ESV
    For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

    Psalm 51:5 ESV
    Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

    Two different Psalms with two different points referring to birth. King David believed what all good Jews did when he wrote this. At least they are attributed to his authorship. Christians have the same understanding, chiefly that God designed us as we read in Genesis, which Ps. 139 betokens.

    But we also know God only directly created Adam & Eve, to whom He gave the power of procreation. It’s not Biblical to think God made you or me. He didn’t need to. There is no well of souls from which you descended into your zygote. This is all pagan and immature thinking. I’m sure you agree based on your comment’s tone.

    Since God designed all living things (that I’m aware of) on Earth with DNA, even plants, which is passed on from “parents”, then even Eve was created with Adam’s DNA and not as he was (from clay, or hydrogen which modern science says we likely “came from” with their focus on evolution and biology)

    David wasn’t ignorant of Genesis. Psalm 139 references God’s creation which continues, though faulty after the fall.

    Ps 51 is stating that David was conceived in sin, and then born a sinner. Other translations focus on this aspect of the Hebrew. David is saying his parents were sinners when they got pregnant, and he was unfortunately unable to avoid being born as such.

    For the record, I agree with 75% of your comment. I believe 1000% in God’s justice and love. Nothing even exists or can outside His being. God didn’t create here while He stood there. Again, more pagan and immature thinking. God is so far beyond having the capacity to properly judge us. I don’t doubt Him. I don’t like the fact Hell exists either, but that’s my problem, not God’s.

    I also know that in Revelation it says Jesus and the Angels preside over the souls in Hell. Some Christians argued with me that this verse didn’t exist. Very loving and knowledgeable and useful believers. I had to gently show them the verse.

    Rev 14:10 ESV
    he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.

    And yet the Old Testament and the Jews that inhabit its pages didn’t have much info about Hell or the Afterlife in general. Heaven was where God lived and they would be with Him if He allowed it.

    Sheol, Tartarus, and so many Jewish concepts of post mortem existence seem Greek, but we know the Athenians learned half their philosophy from Egyptian priests and other cultures, though my dusky hued friends who descend from them would tell me otherwise, and that they invented inventing among other things like bread, breathing O² and lettuce. Windex as well.

    We might gain insight into God’s “style” of punishment and thus Hell from Genesis and the Garden incident. It follows logically that if the consequence of disobedience was God cursing the Earth, Adam & Eve, and the Serpent in a way that was active and not automatically happening from eating the fruit or tempting others, then it makes sense Hell and it’s torture might be the same.

    Of course the serpent was different than the young couple. He knew better in ways they didn’t. So I think his curse may have been at least in part directly manifested by God. Part of what followed may have been the natural consequences of the demotion and pronouncement by God.

    Adam & Eve though had been interfered with by one of God’s children, and not just any, but a Seraph of the highest order. Maybe even the first of his kind. The Adam of his race so to speak.

    This is my answer to people who think God lied when He said Adam & Eve would die when eating the fruit. God spoke these words before Lucifer got involved. God knowing what would happen is another discussion.

    I think now that the first humans suffered consequences that were mainly natural, and the rest happened because they no longer had the authority to tell a plant to grow or an animal to go there. They also lacked the I.Q. to grasp far more than Solomon ever did, even with his gift from God of vast wisdom.

    And yet they could have lived forever in this fallen state. Thus the Angel guarding the entrance to the Garden and the Tree of Life. Gen 3:24.

    Most Christians think Hell for humans is partly a guilt by association scenario where we are lumped into Satan’s destiny because we somehow were joined to him in disobedience and the sharing of authority. Jesus calling Pharisees the children of the Devil didn’t seem allegorical.

    So that’s my 5 cents worth. Gehenna was the local trash dump outside the walls of Jerusalem in Jesus’s time though ot was also an entire valley, the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna). Bodies of criminals were also burned and the fires never went out day and night. Hell is the worst fate, worse than physical death, but God didn’t break down all its points for us. Just enough to scare us, like telling a child not to touch the stove. Rhe reality is likely much worse than anything we can comprehend.

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