** This article was written years ago. Since then while I am still a conservative Christian, I no longer believe in eternal conscious torment.  Please see my response to the article **

Why there has to be a place of eternal punishment.

Contemplating the horrible consequences for His unrepentant people, Jesus wept: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Mt. 23:37). Likewise, the Apostle Paul solemnly cried out, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race” (Ro. 9:2–3).

Contemplating eternal separation from God——namely, “hell”——is a horrible reality. No wonder many unbelievers deny its existence and even some believers at times doubt it.

It has been called cruel, inhuman, and barbarous. Bertrand Russell said anyone who threatens people with eternal punishment, as Jesus did, is inhumane. Even believers question the justice of hell. In this pluralistic age, it seems too harsh a punishment just for believing the wrong thing.

Whatever else may be said against it, the Christian doctrine of hell cannot be an illusion. For no compassionate person wishes there to be a hell. On the other hand, no realistic person can afford to ignore its possibility—certainly no one who takes the words of Scripture seriously. In fact, the one Person in all of history to be in the best position to know had more to say about hell than He did about heaven.

Jesus taught the existence of hell.

Jesus warned, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28). Later, He declared, “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’” (Mt. 25:41). Elsewhere He affirmed: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out” (Mk. 9:43–44). In the very vivid story in Luke 16, which, unlike parables, uses an actual name of a person (Lazarus), Jesus tells in graphic detail about a rich man in hell.

The Bible teaches that there is a hell.

In addition to our Lord’s words, the other inspired writings of the New Testament affirm the existence of hell. Perhaps the most vivid of all is found in Revelation. John declared:

Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

—Rev. 20:13–15

The Apostle Paul spoke of everlasting separation from God, saying that those “who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus . . . will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (2 Thess. 1:7–9). The writer of Hebrews added a note of finality when he wrote, “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27).

God’s love demands a hell.

The objection most often leveled against the doctrine of hell is that it is eminently unloving. An all-loving God could not possibly send anyone to hell. To be sure, the Bible asserts that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:16). But love cannot act coercively, only persuasively. A God of love cannot force people to love Him. Paul spoke of things being done freely and not of compulsion (2 Cor. 9:7). A loving being always gives “space” to others. He does not force himself upon them against their will. C. S. Lewis observed, “The Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will . . . would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo.” Therefore, those who do not wish to love God must be allowed not to love Him. Those who do not wish to be with Him must be allowed to be separated from Him. Hell is this eternal separation from God.

Human dignity demands a hell.

Since God cannot force people into heaven against their free choice, human free choice demands a hell. As C. S. Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” Matthew 23:37 indicates that God wants to gather everyone, but they were not willing. Forcing people to do something against their will is an affront to their dignity.

God’s justice demands a hell.

In addition to the direct affirmations of Scripture, there are many other reasons for the existence of hell. One is that justice demands the existence of hell and God is just (Romans 2). He is so pure and untainted that He cannot even look upon sin (Hab. 1:13). But not all evil is punished in this life. Many observers have noted that the wicked sometimes prosper (Ps. 73:3). Thus, the existence of a place of punishment for the wicked after this life is necessary to maintain the justice of God. Surely, there would be no real justice in the universe unless there were a place of punishment for a demented soul like Hitler, who initiated the merciless slaughter of some six million Jews and others. God’s justice demands that there is a hell.

Illustration by Stefano Vitale

God’s sovereignty demands a hell.

Unless there is a hell there is no final victory over evil. For what frustrates good is evil. The wheat and tares cannot grow together forever. There must be an ultimate separation or else good will not triumph over evil. In society, punishment for evil is necessary that good might prevail. Likewise, in eternity good must triumph over evil. If it does not, then God is not in ultimate control. In brief, God’s sovereignty demands a hell, otherwise He would not be the ultimate victor over evil which the Bible declares that He is (cf. 1 Cor. 15:24–28, Revelation 20–22).

The Cross of Christ implies hell.

At the center of Christianity is the Cross (1 Cor. 1:17–18, 1 Cor. 15:3). Without it there is no salvation (Ro. 4:25, Heb. 10:14). It is the very purpose for which Christ came into the world (Mk. 10:45, Lk. 19:10 ). Without the Cross there is no salvation (Jn. 10:1, Jn. 10:9–10, Acts 4:12). Only through the Cross can we be delivered from our sins (Ro. 3:21–26). Jesus suffered great agony and even separation from God on the Cross (Heb. 2:10–17, Heb. 5:7–9). But why the Cross unless there is a hell? If there is no hell to shun, then the Cross is a sham. Christ’s death is robbed of its eternal significance unless there is an eternal separation from God from which people need to be delivered.

A Response to Objections about Hell

Unbelievers have offered many objections to the doctrine of hell. Given its reality, misery, and finality, it is not difficult to understand why unbelievers would wish there is no hell. But, as the brilliant mathematician Pascal argued in his famous “Wager,” unbelievers have “everything to lose and nothing to gain” by not believing in hell. Nonetheless, their objections must be addressed.

Why punish people? Why not reform them? The answer is simple from both a biblical and rational point of view. First, God does try to reform people; the time of reformation is called life. Peter declared that ” The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). However, after the time of reformation comes the time of reckoning. Hebrews tells us that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Further, hell is only for the unreformable and unrepentant, the reprobate (2 Peter 2). God in His wisdom and goodness would not allow anyone to go to hell who He knew would go to heaven if He gave them more opportunity. He does not want “anyone to perish” (2 Pet. 3:9) but desires “all men to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4).

In addition, God cannot force free creatures to be reformed. Forced reformation is worse than punishment; it is cruel and inhumane. At least punishment respects the freedom and dignity of the person. C. S. Lewis insightfully notes, “To be ‘cured’ against one’s will . . . is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.” Humans are not objects to be manipulated; they are subjects to be respected because they are made in God’s image. Human beings should be punished when they do evil because they were free and knew better.

Isn’t eternal damnation for temporal sins overkill? To punish a person eternally for what he did for a short time on earth seems at first to be extreme. However, on closer examination it turns out to be not only just but necessary. For one thing, only eternal punishment will suffice for sins again the eternal God. The sins may have been committed in time, but they were against the Eternal One. Furthermore, no sin can be tolerated as long as God exists, and He is eternal. Hence, punishment for sin must also be eternal.

What is more, the only alternative to eternal punishment is worse, namely to rob man of his freedom and dignity. This could be done by either forced compliance or total annihilation. Forcing someone into heaven against his free choice would be “hell” for him since he doesn’t fit in a place where everyone is loving and praising the Person he wants most to avoid.

Nor is annihilation an option. Annihilation of the wicked is contrary to both the nature of the immortal God and the nature of humans made in His image. It is not consistent with an all-loving God to snuff out those who do not do His wishes. What would we think of an earthly father who killed his children when they did not do what he wanted them to do? The fact that these persons are suffering no more justifies annihilating them than it does for a parent to kill his child who is suffering.

Finally, without an eternal separation, there could be no heaven. Evil is contagious (1 Cor. 5:6) and must be quarantined. Like a deadly plague, if it is not contained it will continue to contaminate and corrupt. If God did not eventually separate the tares from the wheat, the tares would choke out the wheat. The only way to preserve an eternal place of good is for God to eternally separate all evil from it. The only way to have an eternal heaven is to have an eternal hell.

How can we be happy in heaven knowing a loved one is in hell? No concerned believer has not struggled with this problem. However, once the emotional fog lifts, the mind can see that the very presupposition of this question is seriously flawed. It supposes that we are more merciful than God! God is perfectly happy in heaven, and He knows that not everyone will be there. Yet He is infinitely more merciful than we are. What is more, if we could not be happy in heaven knowing anyone was in hell, then our happiness is not in our hands but someone else’s. But hell cannot veto heaven! We can be happy in heaven the same way we can still enjoy eating knowing others are starving. And remember, just as bad memories can be healed here on earth, God will “wipe away all tears” in heaven (Rev. 21:4).

Why did God create people He knew would go to hell? Some critics of hell argue that if God knew that His creatures would reject Him and end up in such a horrible place as hell, then why did He create them in the first place. Wouldn’t it have been better never to have existed than to exist and go to hell? No doubt most of us have at times wished for oblivion as an alternative to our suffering. But like the apostle’s wish to be accursed for his brethren (Ro. 9:1–3), it is an unfulfillable wish. Like the desire never to have been born, once one has been created an immortal soul, the desire for mortality is unrealizable. Further, the very implication that “nonexistence is better than existence” is meaningless. For “nonexistence” is nothing, and nothing cannot be better than anything—for it simply does not exist. To affirm that nothing can be better than something is a gigantic category mistake. In order to compare two things, they must have something in common. But there is nothing in common between nothing and something. They are diametrically opposite. Someone may feel like being put out of his misery, but he cannot consistently think of non-being as a better state than being.

True, Jesus said of Judas that it would have been better if he had never been born (Mk. 14:21). But this is simply a strong expression indicating the severity of his sin, not a statement about the superiority of non-being over being. Nothing cannot be better than something, since the two have nothing in common to compare them.

Life is like a game—a very serious one. As in every game, there are rules and there are results. Lewis put it, “If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it.” And simply because some will lose in the game of life does not mean it should not be played. Before we take to the road each day we know that many people will be killed in traffic accidents. Yet we continue to drive. When we have children, we know great tragedy could befall our offspring or ourselves. Yet in all these cases our foreknowledge of evil does not negate our will to permit the possibility of good. Why? Because when the game of life is played, some must win and some must lose.

But we deem it worthwhile because it is better to have played with the opportunity to win than not to have played at all. From God’s standpoint, it is better to have loved the whole world (Jn. 3:16) and lost some than not to have loved them at all. Life is a serious moral game, and morality is not possible without free choice. It was good for God to create free creatures, and it is good to be free. But there are consequences to free choice—sometimes final and irrevocable consequences. Jesus passionately desired all His people to be in the fold, but mournfully added of some, “but you were not willing” (Mt. 23:37).

Is it just to send people to hell when they can’t help being sinners? The Bible says we are born sinners (Ps. 51:5) and are “by nature the children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3, NKJV). But if sinners cannot avoid sinning, is it fair to send them to hell for what they could not stop doing?

First of all, according to the Bible, people go to hell for two reasons: (1) They are born with a bent to sin, and (2) they chose to sin. They are born on a road that leads to hell, but they also fail to heed the warning signs along the way to turn from destruction (Lk. 13:3, 2 Pet. 3:9). Furthermore, while human beings sin because they are sinners (by nature), nonetheless, their sin nature does not force them to sin; they choose to sin. As St. Augustine correctly said, “We are born with the propensity to sin and the necessity to die.” Notice, he did not say we are born with the necessity to sin. While sin is inevitable since we are born with a bent in that direction, nonetheless, sin is not unavoidable. Likewise, the ultimate place to which sinners are destined is also avoidable. All one needs to do is to repent (Lk. 13:3, Acts 17:30, 2 Pet. 3:9). All men are held responsible for their decision to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation. And responsibility always implies the ability to respond.

All who go to hell could have avoided going there if they had chosen not to. No pagan anywhere is without clear light from God so that he is “without excuse” (Ro. 1:19–20, Ro. 2:12–15). And those who seek, find. Just as God sent a missionary to Cornelius (Acts 10:3–5), so He will provide the message of salvation for all who seek it. For “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6).

Publisher Paul Westervelt, Discipleship Journal, Issue 87 (May/June 1995) (NavPress, 1995; 2006).

© 2010 – 2023, Matt. All rights reserved.