Why is God’s punishment for sin eternal?

(Alexander Csepregi) #1

Hello everyone,

I’m wondering how I could best respond to the above mentioned question which a Muslim friend of mine raised to me.
His idea of punishment for sin is that if he commits a sin, then depending on how severe that sin was, he could (and should) suffer in hell as a result, but only until he learns that it was a sin and he would never do it again. Once he’s learnt that, he would be free to enter paradise, because he would never do it again. Can you shed some light on this? Maybe the question would need the to be qualified first. I understand that the concept of God’s holiness can be introduced to the discussion, as in God is holy and we’re not, and even though we may “pay” for our sins we will never become holy to enter God’s presence. Also, as I was thinking about this I realized that the whole concept of paying for sins may be foreign to the Bible. I mean that the idea of a sacrifice was to cover the sins of someone, not to pay for them. We talk about Jesus paying for our sins all the time but is that actually Biblical or is it just a metaphor that we’ve been using for so long that we accept it as Biblical fact.
So I guess it ends up being two questions:

1.) Why is the punishment for sins eternal (when they have temporary effects)?
2.) Is the idea of paying for sins Biblically warranted?

The first question is more pressing, but the second may be an underlying question.

Thank you!

(SeanO) #2

@alex_csepi Those are great questions. Let’s start with the 1st question and I’ll have a go at the second one in another thread. First, why do people say that sinners will suffer eternally? There are two reasons:

  1. People say that sinners will exist eternally because they believe that the human soul is immortal - once God has created it He will not destroy it - therefore if someone rejects God they must be somewhere for eternity

  2. There are two camps that say sinners will suffer forever - one that believes this suffering will be inflicted by God Himself and another that says this suffering will be the result of being separated from God forever. People in the first group generally say that sinners will suffer eternally because God is infinitely holy and therefore a sin committed against an infinite holy God requires an infinite punishment. People in the second group, like C. S. Lewis in ‘The Great Divorce’, generally have a view of Hell as a place where people suffer not because God is tormenting them, but because they are suffering the consequences of abandoning God.

Now, let’s have a quick critique of each of these points:

  1. I Timothy 6:16 says that God is ‘alone immortal’ - which means that apart from God’s sustaining hand upon us we are not immortal. The idea that our soul is immortal has its roots in Greco-Roman philosophy more than Scripture in my own opinion.

  2. One reason people are attracted to Lewis’ view of eternal suffering - one that is self-inflicted by separation from God - is because the idea of God tormenting people forever is not in keeping with God’s character in Scripture. Ezekiel 18:23 says that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked - how much less in their torment? Also, God did not kill Cain right after he killed Abel, but instead protected him and even warned him beforehand in an attempt to save his soul. God is so patient with evil people - He makes it to rain on the good and the wicked. Why would God suddenly turn tormenter in the afterlife? I do not deny God’s wrath is terrible and He has brought destruction on cities and nations and people - but only after they have persisted in wrongdoing and never with a desire to inflict torment (as far as I can see).

There are 3 views of how God handles sinners that have been held historically:

  1. eternal suffering
  2. annihilation - after being judged by God sinners are destroyed / cease to exist (John Stott)
  3. universalism - sin must be dealt with through Jesus, but God will do whatever it takes even in the afterlife to draw sinners to Jesus and help them see themselves so that they can truly repent (George MacDonald)

None of these views are heretical - very well known Christians have held each of them. What is generally considered outside of orthodoxy is denying that sin required Jesus’ sacrifice - so some people who are ‘universalist’ deny that sin is even a problem - and that is not Biblical in the least. I commend the following resources for further study. Christ grant you wisdom :slight_smile:

Does God threaten us to Himself?
(Alexander Csepregi) #3

@SeanO Thank you for your thoughtful response and I apologize for taking so long to give any response! What struck me first in your response (because it is much unlike the way I’ve been taught to think in my church) is that neither eternal suffering, annihilation, or universalism is heretical. I guess I see your reasoning behind that point, but then again, it would be necessary to define what should and should not be considered heresy.
Anyways, back to our discussion on hell. Since I wrote this post I’ve been reading “Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus” from Nabeel Qureshi which helped shed some light on the Muslim concept of hell, which also helped me understand why my Muslim friend had a question about punishment in hell being eternal, as opposed to temporal - until you have suffered the allotted time for the sins you have commited. From my current understanding, Muslims don’t see sin as nearly as bad as would be warranted from the Bible. They basically see sins and good deeds being weighed against each other on the day of judgment. Whichever weighs more will determine your eternal destiny. However, we orthodox Christians have a concept of sin (and God and heaven) where one single act of sin makes us unholy and unable to enter the presence of God (heaven). In light of this, in makes sense why a Muslim would have a difficult time understanding the eternal nature of punishment in hell, while as a Christian, the concept of paying for our sins by receiving punishment in hell for a specific amount of time and then being allowed into Heaven is foreign. Well, maybe not so foreing if I understand universalism correctly.
Anyways, I’m kind of just ranting at this point. If you have anything to add, I would be very interested to hear (read) it! :slight_smile:

(SeanO) #4

@alex_csepi Thanks for the response! In the Christian view, sin fundamentally alters you - it is not simply an action. The idea of the fall of man is that after that point we were ‘sinners’ - slaves to sin, who could not avoid sin in spite of our best efforts. We did not need to just be forgiven - we needed to become a New Creation. And ‘in Christ’ we are made new creations! (2 Cor 5:17)

So in the Christian view of sin, as I understand it, death is inevitable if we refuse to be ‘made new’, because we must become the type of people who can inhabit Heaven by being reconciled with God. The issue is both one of reconciliation through Christ’s paying the penalty of sin (death) and one of recreation where we become new in Christ.

Jesus did not come, in my view, to ‘balance the scales’ - but to die in our place in order to make us sons and daughters of God - new creations capable of obeying God by the power of the Spirit.

The whole idea of grace is that we receive what we do not deserve because Jesus was worthy to die in our place. That would be hard to comprehend for a Muslim who saw our life as being weighed by good deeds versus bad deeds.