I understand that the concept of eternal suffering is disturbing – it is meant to be. But to lessen the dread of what looms for the lost does not help those in bondage flee to Christ for deliverance.
The summer I turned 18, as a rebel living in defiance against God, I decided to read through the Bible. I’m not sure if I was looking for errors or answers, but I was pretty alarmed at what I found. It was clear that if Adam and Eve were booted from paradise for disobeying something like biting a piece of fruit, then God certainly wasn’t going to let me in after all I’d done.
And the thing about hell that disturbed me most wasn’t the fire and darkness, the falling and other horrors – bad as they were – but the eternality of it all! I was sort of hoping to find something to suggest that hell might not be as infinitely awful as I’d always heard. Actually, I was looking for the sort of stuff you’re saying!
Well, over the course of a few months, I read all 1,189 chapters from Genesis to Revelation – including the genealogies. And in my unenlightened approach, nothing I saw ever suggested to me that hell was anything less than eternal misery. Granted, I didn’t have the scholarship of some who now question that view. But then, I don’t think it really requires a Bible scholar to understand the book – perhaps to explain away some of the more unpleasant parts – but it was written for a child to understand.
I appreciate your use of phrases like “not necessarily” and “it can mean” and “it is possible that” as you question the eternal duration of hell. You appear to be cautious about emphatically declaring that this annihilistic view is certain. I would consider that wise caution.
I would call this a case where Pascal’s Wager should be considered. If you’re right – if hell is mere annihilation – then the worst that will happen to the lost who reject that message is that they’ll “enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season” and then merely cease to exist. To be honest, when I was a teenage rebel, that wouldn’t have sounded so bad!
If I’m right – if hell is eternal torment – then the worst that will happen to the lost who reject that message is, well…infinitely worse! And as a teenage rebel, that put the fear of God in me – and six months later, I came to Christ and my life was miraculously transformed!
Can someone cast a question mark over hell’s eternal nature? Oh sure. Ever since Eden, people have found ways to question inconvenient or unpleasant subjects.
Eternal torment in Revelation? Ignore it – that’s all apocalyptic.
The rich man and Lazarus? No worries – it’s just a parable.
Eternal punishment? Well, it’s not necessarily eternal.
Maybe God will one day tell you, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” for helping people question whether it’s really as bad as they’ve been led to believe. But, Pascal’s Wager – what’s the worst that can happen if you’re wrong…or if I am? If there’s really a question about it, which side shows a greater caution?
I’ll finish with a few observations that I hope will help.
If annihilation is the common lot of sinners, then Hitler’s hell is no worse than the death of a house pet. Is that really divine justice?
God’s holiness is infinite. To sin against it is an infinite crime demanding infinite justice. Either an infinite Messiah can satisfy it in a finite moment, or finite sinners must spend an eternity satisfying it – which means they never will. Annihilation falls infinitely short of what divine justice would demand.
God’s glory is infinite. To understate the misery of hell devalues the glory of the God we’ve offended. The awfulness of hell is in inverse proportion to the majesty of God. “Hell is meant to fill us with awe at the glory we have scorned” – John Piper.
God’s love is infinite. Those who consider eternal torment to be inconsistent with a loving God are completely ignoring the cross. To lessen the agony of hell cheapens the suffering of Christ on the cross. It devalues the love He demonstrated by taking upon Himself what we deserved.
I truly hope that these thoughts are helpful to you!