Over the past several months, I have tried to deal with several questions I receive at church on a regular basis. I figured that if people at church have the question, then someone else might as well. I have answered questions that have to do with what happens when you die; why Jesus is called the Everlasting Father; The Ten Commandments and Sabbath issues; and why there are only 66 books of the Bible. Today's question gets to the heart of heaven and hell issues.
Second Thessalonians refers to an eternal punishment not an eternal unending punishment. Revelation refers to spirit beings that are immortal already that will be tossed into the lake of fire. It speaks of an unquenchable fire which means to me that it can't be put out, but it is possible that it can go out or end. Where does the idea of eternal conscious suffering come from?
From reading the question, it seems to me the main concern has to do with the morality of eternal conscious suffering. Let me first make a case for the biblical nature of eternal conscious suffering and then I will try to answer the objection of whether it is fair or not.
Is Eternal Conscious Suffering Biblical?
I would make the argument that the eternality of conscious suffering in hell is as biblical as the glory of eternal life in heaven. They are talked about in similar passages with similar terminology. To say that one is temporal and one is eternal would be to do hermeneutical gymnastics inside a particular verse. Here is a list of several passages of Scripture that speak to the eternal nature of both of these, but primarily I am listing those that speak to the eternal conscious suffering of unbelievers.
- "Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?" (Isaiah 33:14)
- ". . . the chaff will burn with unquenchable fire." (Matthew 3:12)
- ". . . to be thrown into the eternal fire." (Matthew 18:8)
- "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'" (Matthew 25:41)
- "these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Matthew 25:46)
- "They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might." (2 Thessalonians 1:9)
- ". . . a punishment of eternal fire." (Jude 7)
- "...the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever." (Revelation 20:10)
- "And if anyone name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." (Revelation 20:15)
I do not know how to get around the textual evidence of eternal conscious suffering of those that do not know Jesus Christ. It is not one of those things that is fun to talk about, but it is in the Bible. Eternal means eternal. It means unending. It does not do justice to the text to say that something is eternal but not unending. Would we say that God is Eternal? Does that mean that He could come to an end? Of course not. It means that He is and will be forever. I do not know how else to interpret that word. That is why Revelation 20:10 says "forever and ever." That means there will never be an end to it.
Is Eternal Conscious Suffering Fair?
This seems to be the bigger issue. Is it fair? Should after spending a few million years of suffering for their sins a person be extinguished or the punishment be lightened, or even then given another chance to accept Jesus Christ? Throughout the years, this has raised the most controversial question about judgement. As David Clotfelter asks in his book, Sinners in the Hands of a Good God, "How can it be just for God to requite the finite number of sins we can commit in this life with a punishment that is never ending?" (88-9). He goes on to give what he feels is the best answer:
"Because God is a Being of infinite worth, to whom we owe an infinite obligation, sin against God is an infinite evil requiring an infinite punishment. And since the punishments of hell cannot be infinite in intensity, as that would violate the principle that the lost are punished according to their deeds, it must be the case that hell is infinite in duration" (92).
Writing about the morality of eternal punishment, Clotfelter continues . . .
"If there is any place in theology where our willingness to submit to the Bible is tested to the utmost, it is surely here. If the Bible did not teach everlasting punishment, then there would be no need for us to tolerate that doctrine. If the Bible does teach it, as I have argued that it does, then we have no right to reject it, no matter how much anguish it may cause us and no matter how great a change it may demand in our living and thinking. Our sense of its moral intolerability may well move us to look for alternatives to the doctrine of eternal punishment, but if in the end we find that doctrine in the Bible, we have no choice but to learn to tolerate it. A failure to do so might well result in a failure to grow into the people God wants us to be" (95).
I would highly recommend his book for further help on this subject. But I warn you, it is not for the light of heart. It is theologically rich. But that wealth will not come without some work on your part. I hope this has helped answer this question or at least moved someone to find the resources needed to begin thinking about these things.