Must the punishment of the lost be eternal?

Tyler S. Ramey

Most Christians haven’t pondered the concept of hell to the extent it causes any great personal distress; after all, Christians by definition aren’t going there, and it’s far more pleasant to meditate on a heavenly destination than to spend time considering the awful images of hell portrayed in Scripture.  But some Christians do think about hell, as well they should.  They attempt to grasp the implications of such a place, or at least prepare to satisfy inquiring believers and unbelievers who wonder how a loving God could ever condemn a person to eternal punishment.

Objections to the traditional doctrine that the punishment endured in hell is an eternal punishment generates alternative perspectives, e.g., the "snuffing out" of the wicked (annihilationism).  But such perspectives are designed to satisfy emotional objections that a loving and gracious God would never punish eternally.  In order to arrive to the truth regarding the matter, there are two areas to be considered: 1) God’s Word, and 2) rational justification for the endlessness of suffering.  Let’s examine the strongest verses and one compelling reason for the traditional view that hell is never ending.

The Biblical Argument

Verses indicating the eternality of hell are found in Matthew and Revelation.  Matthew 25:41, 46 says:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. . . .’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Here we have Jesus marking a clear distinction between the eternal fate of those who have chosen to reject him and those who have chosen to accept him.  The Greek word for “eternal” in verse 41 and 46 is aionios (eye-OH-nee-os).  Aionios is consistently used in Scripture to mean “endless” when describing the duration of the life of the believer.  John 3:16 tells us that those who believe in Christ Jesus shall have “eternal life.”  This is an important point because in Matthew 25:46 Jesus speaks of the eternal life of the “righteous” and contrasts it with the eternal punishment of the “cursed.”  Verses 41 and 46 wouldn’t make sense if Jesus meant two different “eternals” when he referred to the eternal nature of the existence of both the righteous and the cursed; after all, he used the same word, aionios.  The context of Matthew 25:41, 46 (See vv. 31-46) disallows an alternative view contradicting the traditional perspective that hell is forever.    

When we compare the above evidence to that in Revelation 14:9-11, the picture that emerges is one that clearly supports the traditional view of hell’s  duration.  Revelation 14:9-11 says:

“ . . . If anyone worships the beast and his image . . . he will be tormented with burning sulfur . . . and the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever.”

The construction here is clearer yet in establishing the eternality of hell.  A Greek method of emphasis is used here to indicate the duration of  torment (not to be confused with torture).  “For ever and ever” is translated from the Greek phrase meaning “ages of ages” and is only used to emphasize never-ending duration (See also Rev. 20:10).  So, we see from very minimal biblical evidence that hell is a real place, and the torment—which can mean both physical and mental anguish—is eternal.

The Rational Argument

The rational arguments for the never-ending nature of hell are extensive, but we’ll focus on just one because I think it's the most compelling.  You see, the very doctrine of Christ’s infinite and vicarious atonement depends on, or is at least related to, the doctrine of endless punishment.

The suffering in hell must be never ending so long as the reason for the suffering continues.  Guilt is the reason for the endlessness of suffering in hell.  Guilt incurred for a sin committed today exists tomorrow.  The guilt exists a year from now, ten years from now, a hundred thousand years from now, ad infinitum.  Sin causes eternal guilt because it is an evil committed against an infinite being—God.  The incarnation of an infinite being and his infinite, vicarious atonement for sin demonstrates the eternal magnitude of evil.  If sin were temporal, i.e., committed against a finite being, then Christ’s sacrifice would not have been necessary.  But sin is committed against an infinite God and the infinite guilt incurred by sin is only atoned, or covered by, infinite sacrifice.

Christ's incarnation and infinite sacrifice requires the eternal nature of hell. For if his sacrifice for sin is infinite, then so to is the punishment for sins. Without his infinite self-sacrifice, the forgiveness of sins would not be possible.  So, in answer to the question "must the punishment of the lost be eternal," the answer is, yes, there is no other way to punish infinite guilt.

“Always be prepared to give an answer”