The eternality of Hell is a topic which has been discussed and debated for centuries. Are the flames of Hell (or ultimately the “lake of fire”) eternal, or will the unredeemed simply burn up, and cease to exist (Annihilationism) as some scholars such as John Stott conclude?
The Bible clearly teaches a reality of “eternal” punishment (II Thes 1:9-10, Jude 13, Heb 6:1-2, Rev 14:11, Dan 12:2, etc.), but how is this just? Here is the question: how can the sins of one man or woman’s lifetime—even the vilest of sinners, who committed horrible crimes from birth, for eighty-some years—deserve punishment for eternity? Even a hundred years is nothing in comparison to eternity! Does the punishment fit the crime?
At first glance it may not seem so, but when one reaches deeper into the very nature of sin, the answer comes out clearly ‘Yes.’ The reason for the eternality of Hell coincides not with the length of time sinning, but with the gravity of sin itself—or more specifically, the worth of the One sinned against. The apostle Paul recognized that sin is, in its broadest sense, an act of idolatry. Paul speaks of idolatry in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God… they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:21-25). When man sins he is discarding God as his all-satisfying treasure, and exchanges Him for something else—an idol—which he hopes will satisfy him better. This is idolatry, and this is a blasphemous sin against the all-satisfying God of the universe! Here we see that our sins are not simply sins against man, or even against the laws of God, but are sins against the very nature and person of God! Because man has rejected the infinitely glorious God, he deserves an infinitely great punishment. We all do.
Jonathan Edwards handles the subject well, in his writing, “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners.” Please bear with Edwards’ old English. He sheds valuable light on the subject:
“Every crime or fault deserves a greater or less punishment, in proportion as the crime itself is greater or less. If any fault deserves punishment, then so much the greater the fault, so much the greater is the punishment deserved. …so that if there be any such thing as a fault infinitely heinous, it will follow that it is just to inflict a punishment for it that is infinitely dreadful.
A crime is more or less heinous, according as we are under greater or less obligations to the contrary. This is self-evident; because it is herein that the criminalness or faultiness of any thing consists, that it is contrary to what we are obliged or bound to, or what ought to be in us. So the faultiness of one being hating another, is in proportion to his obligation to love him. The crime of one being despising and casting contempt on another, is proportionably more or less heinous, as he was under greater or less obligations to honour him. The fault of disobeying another, is greater or less, as any one is under greater or less obligations to obey him. And therefore if there be any being that we are under infinite obligations to love, and honour, and obey, the contrary towards him must be infinitely faulty.
Our obligation to love, honour, and obey any being, is in proportion to his loveliness, honourableness, and authority; for that is the very meaning of the words. When we say any one is very lovely, it is the same as to say, that he is one very much to be loved. Or if we say such a one is more honourable than another, the meaning of the words is, that he is one that we are more obliged to honour. If we say any one has great authority over us, it is the same as to say, that he has great right to our subjection and obedience.
But God is a being infinitely lovely, because he hath infinite excellency and beauty. To have infinite excellency and beauty, is the same thing as to have infinite loveliness. He is a being of infinite greatness, majesty, and glory; and therefore he is infinitely honourable. He is infinitely exalted above the greatest potentates of the earth, and highest angels in heaven; and therefore he is infinitely more honourable than they. His authority over us is infinite; and the ground of his right to our obedience is infinitely strong; for he is infinitely worthy to be obeyed himself, and we have an absolute, universal, and infinite dependence upon him.
So that sin against God, being a violation of infinite obligations, must be a crime infinitely heinous, and so deserving of infinite punishment.- Nothing is more agreeable to the common sense of mankind, than that sins committed against any one, must be proportionably heinous to the dignity of the being offended and abused…”
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