Hell as Eternal Conscious Torment

This post is part 1 of the series Four Views of Hell that summarizes the Counterpoints book of the same name. My goal is to faithfully represent each of the four views as described by their authors, keeping my view out as much as possible.

Denny Burk provided the chapter in defense of the traditional view that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment.

The Argument for Eternal Conscious Torment

Many people find the traditional view of hell objectionable. John Stott summarizes a common position when he says, “I find the concept of [of eternal conscious torment] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.” Stott is not an outlier. How should we reconcile eternal conscious torment with a just God? 

Philosophical defense

On the one hand, regardless of this difficulty, Scripture demands that Christians accept the traditional view of hell. However, we can and should find a solution to this apparent difficulty. After all, our conception of hell says a lot about our idea of God, and the traditional view of hell provides us with the highest view of God.

Imagine that you see a stranger pulling the legs off of a grasshopper. You will be disturbed but would not likely intervene. Now imagine that he is pulling the legs off a puppy. Now you will be appalled and might step in and get the authorities involved. Finally, imagine that he is about to rip a baby apart. Now you will act immediately, risking your skin to save the baby. In every case, the sin is the same – ripping the legs off a living being – but the object of that sin (grasshopper, puppy, baby) changes the appropriate response.

If we imagine that God is like a grasshopper then we will think God is overreacting to our sin. But, if we recognize that God is infinitely more valuable than even that precious baby, we begin to see the logic of hell as eternal conscious torment. “The seriousness of the sin – and thus the punishment due to sin – is not measured merely by the sin itself but by the value and the worth of the one sinned against” (19).

Since God is of infinite value, God can be just by demanding a punishment of infinite duration.

We can see, then, that “our emotional reflex against the traditional doctrine of hell reveals what we really believe about God” (20). We find the traditional view unjust because we have too light a view of sin, which reveals too low a view of God. If we had a proper view of God, we would rejoice in hell as a tool to give God the glory he deserves: “This view of God’s judgment is not a cause for embarrassment for Christians, but will ultimately be a source of joy and praise for the saints as they witness the infinite goodness and justice of God (Rev. 18:20, 19:3)” (20). 

Scriptural defense

As stated before, Scripture demands the traditional view of hell. This view is expounded in ten foundational texts that deal specifically with hell: Isaiah 66:22-24, Daniel 12:2-3, Matthew 18:6-9, 25:31-46, Mark 9:42-48, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, June 7, 13, Revelation 14:9-11, 20:10-14-15. Each of these texts shows how Scripture defines hell with the following characteristics: (1) final separation, (2) unending experience, (3) just retribution.

Final separation

Final separation occurs at the last judgment and consists in the irrevocable separation of the wicked from the righteous and from the presence of God’s mercy” (21). That this separation is irrevocable rules out the possibility of post-judgment redemption of the damned. Note the two-fold separation. First, God separates the righteous from the wicked. Then, the wicked are separated from God’s mercy.

The separation of the righteous from the wicked can be found in Isaiah 66:22-24 where the righteous enjoy the new heaven and the new earth while the wicked are portrayed as “dead bodies” being continually eaten away by undying worms and unquenchable fire. It can also be seen in Daniel 12:2-3 where the dead are raised to either eternal life or eternal contempt. Or, it can be seen in Matthew 25:46 where the righteous go to eternal life and the wicked to eternal punishment.

The separation of the wicked from God’s mercy also appears in the ten passages listed above. In Matthew 25:41 the Son of Man says “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” In 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Paul says the wicked “will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” They are not only shut out in a generic sense but specifically from the “glory of his might.” They are shut out of the mercy of his resurrection power. 

This separation is irrevocable, a point made clear by the language of these texts which describe the punishment as eternal. Hell is an “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46), and an “eternal destruction” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). The wicked “suffer the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7). They will be thrown into hell “where the fire never goes out” (Mark 9:43). 

Unending experience

Unending experience indicates that the punishment of hell will be consciously experienced forever and will not abate with annihilation or eventual salvation of the damned” (21).

The damned will receive bodies at the resurrection (Daniel 12:2-3) that are fitted for hell, just as the righteous receive bodies that are fitted for eternal life. We can infer this from passages such as Isaiah 66:24 where the corpses are eaten by worms that don’t die and by a fire that does not go out. “Under normal circumstances, fire and worm would consume a corpse until there was nothing left… this scene seems to assume that God’s enemies have been given a body fit for unending punishment” (23).

Other passages speak more directly to the idea that hell is consciously experienced forever. When the Son of Man separates the righteous from the wicked, the righteous go to eternal life while the wicked go to eternal punishment. The parallelism here suggests that if the state of the righteous is of eternal consciousness, so must be the state of the wicked. John says in Revelation 14:9-11 says that those who receive the mark of the beast will be “tormented,” that “the smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever,” and that “there will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast.”

The word “destruction” in 1 Thessalonians 1:9 presents a challenge since “eternal destruction” seems to indicate annihilation but the Greek word for destruction here doesn’t mean “cease to exist” but has the sense of “ruin or loss.” The wicked, therefore, experience eternal ruin, apart from the presence of God.

Just retribution

Just retribution indicates that the terrors of the damned are a recompense for evil, not a means of redemption or renewal. It is a punitive judgment intended to magnify the justice of God” (21). This perspective precludes the hope that the fires of hell will purify the wicked. It also precludes more recent conceptions of hell (not covered in this book) which view it primarily as a way that God ultimately “gives people what they want.”

As has already been noted, hell is described as “‘eternal punishment” against the wicked in Matthew 25:46. In Mark 9:45 and 47, the wicked are “thrown into hell” as punishment for causing a little one to stumble. In 1 Thessalonians 1:8-9, Paul says that God will “punish those who do not know God or obey the gospel of Jesus our Lord” and that they will be “punished with everlasting destruction.” Jude 7 compares the final judgment of the wicked with the punitive destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. That punishment serves as an example “of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. Revelation 14:10 says that those who are tormented eternally “will drink the wine of God’s fury.”

Conclusion

The doctrine of hell should teach us whom we should properly fear: “God is not only the treasure of heaven. He is the terror of hell. What makes hell terrifying is not just the presence of the devil but the presence of God’s wrath and indignation forever” (42). But the terror of hell does not just give us a proper sense of fear, but should also cause us to glorify God for His mercy and justice. In the end, “God is glorified in both mercy and justice, and the existence of hell serves to demonstrate eternally the glory of God’s justice and judgment on sin” (42).

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