Awhile ago, I posted some selections of Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” As it happens, three weeks ago was the 275th anniversary of the greatest sermon preached on American soil. If you haven’t read that post, I would invite you to read what I’ve called America’s greatest sermon for America’s greatest need, extraordinarily relevant for our nation today.
Sermons and teaching like that represented in Edwards’ sermon tends to generate several objections, including the notion that it is unjust for God to punish those who die in their sins for eternity in hell. I want to respond to that objection today.
But before I jump in, I want to make a couple disclaimers. First, this post does not set out to prove that the biblical picture of hell is that of eternal conscious torment. For the sake of time and space I assume it to be so. I know there are strenuous objections to this doctrine from the various corners of unbelief—both from those who do and do not claim to be Christians. Though I vigorously believe this to be the biblical teaching, it simply falls outside the scope of this post to make a full defense of the doctrine. For those looking for that, you might start here.
Secondly, I acknowledge the doctrine of eternal conscious torment to be a terrifying, awful reality. Though I speak about these things frankly, and what may seem like dispassionately, I want to assure you that I don’t do so with a sinful delight or an unfeeling vengefulness. Like our great God, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek 33:11), and I don’t take for granted that I’m discussing an unspeakably horrifying reality that I hope none of you reading this ever experiences. In fact, it’s precisely because of my deep desire for you (and those to whom you minister) to escape eternal punishment that I endeavor to speak about it in this post. I don’t do so flippantly or lightly, but (I hope) with the gravity that it deserves.
Two Basic Claims
The basic objection is that the biblical doctrine of eternal conscious torment is at odds with any reasonable notion of God’s love or justice. The argument basically boils down to two claims:
- Not everyone in history has had equal access to the Gospel—i.e., the remedy for or rescue from the horrific punishment of eternal hell. God is unjust and unloving to not have sovereignly orchestrated things such that all had an equal opportunity of receiving salvation.
- It is unjust to think that a person who has committed fewer or relatively less evil sins (e.g., a child stealing a cookie from a cookie jar) suffers the same eternal, infinite punishment in hell as a person who has committed more or relatively more evil sins (e.g., Hitler). God’s justice has no sense of proportion.
God is Not Obligated to Be Gracious
To illustrate, it is perfectly consistent with the tenets of justice for a human judge to sentence every murderer to life in prison without offering mercy to any of them. It is absolutely no blight on the character of a judge to send a guilty criminal to prison. In a similar way, it would have been entirely consistent with the tenets of justice for God to have saved absolutely no one from sin. He was entirely within His rights to send every last human being to hell. Why? Because we are all actually guilty. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). “Death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). Because of our sin—because we are all actually lawbreakers—all of humanity deserves the eternal punishment that is the penalty for sin.
The unbeliever denies this. It’s the classic mistake of conceiving of God to be less righteous than he is and of conceiving man to be more righteous than he is (Rom 10:2–3). It supposes that man, the criminal, is owed some opportunity for reprieve from the just punishment that his sins deserve.
But we do not deserve grace. Grace is by definition undeserved, and so God is not obligated to give grace to anyone. No human being even deserves to hear the Gospel, let alone experience the sovereignly powerful, irresistible saving grace of God that is effectual unto salvation. That God does save anyone is an unspeakable act of love.
But He was under no obligation to do so. His character as a just Judge would not have been impugned in the least if He punished every single human being according as their sins deserve. That’s why Paul can say in Romans 9 that God is not unjust to have compassion on whomever He chooses (Rom 9:14–16), and that moral ability is not a precondition of accountability (Rom 9:19–20).
The Quantitative and Qualitative Aspects of Eternal Punishment
The second claim fails just as much as the first, but is a bit more complex. It requires us to understand both the qualitative and quantitative aspects of sin and punishment.
In the one sense, all sin—whether murdering someone, stealing a car, lying, or even being hatefully angry with someone—receives the same infinite penalty of spending an eternity in hell. We could call this the quantitative sense of punishment; i.e., the quantity of time for which all sinners are punished is equal. This is because punishment for sin is measured by the dignity of the One sinned against. All sin is fundamentally sin against God (cf. Ps 51:4), and He is infinitely holy. Accordingly, sin against an infinitely holy God demands an infinite punishment. The severity of the punishment points to the holiness of God. He is so righteous that the just penalty for offending His holiness is something so horrible as eternal conscious torment. It would actually be unjust for God not to punish sin eternally, because to do so would belittle the value and glory of His worthiness.
However, while the punishment that each sinner receives is quantitatively identical (i.e., it lasts forever), it is not qualitatively identical. There are degrees of punishment in hell. We see this plainly from a number of texts of Scripture. Jesus tells the citizens of Chorazin and Bethsaida that it will be more tolerable for the inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for them—more tolerable for the wicked men and women of Sodom than for the citizens of Capernaum—since they had a greater degree of revelation available to them and spurned it (Matthew 11:21-24). Hebrews 10:29 says the one who has been exposed to the greatest revelation of the truth of God in the New Covenant and yet rejects it deserves a “much severer punishment” than those who rejected the Law of Moses. 2 Peter 2:17 speaks about “the gloom of utter darkness” (ESV), “the blackest darkness” (NIV), or “the utter depths of darkness” (NET) that is reserved for false teachers (cf. Jude 1:13).
So to summarize, all of mankind is guilty of sinning against an infinitely holy God. Therefore, all who die without repenting and trusting in Christ face the same quantitatively eternal punishment for their sins. And yet, because God is strictly just, He will punish those who committed qualitatively greater offenses with a qualitatively greater punishment. As Edwards continues in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” he notes that the wicked “shall not suffer beyond what strict justice requires.” The character of their suffering will be exactly proportional to the crimes they’ve committed.
Darkening Counsel with Words without Knowledge
Now, I’m under no delusions that this doctrine is anything but absolutely repugnant to the natural mind. The just punishment required by the law is always repugnant to the criminal. I understand that the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised (1 Cor 2:14). But to the one who would object to this teaching, and who would arrogantly dare to impugn the character of God as unjust, the Holy Spirit responds with the most scathing rebuke: “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it?” (Rom 9:20).
In other words, you’re out of your league, above your pay grade. You’re the creature and God is the Creator. He is not beholden to your judgment, but rather you are beholden to His. After all, where were you when God laid the foundation of the earth? Have you ever, in your life, commanded the morning and caused the dawn to know its place? (see Job 38).
The Door of Mercy is Yet Open
No, you haven’t. That’s why it’s absolutely necessary that you humble yourself now before this Almighty God, and submit all of who you are—even your fallen, sin-cursed reasoning—to the Lordship of Christ as He has revealed Himself in His Word. And, wonder of wonders, there’s still time! This perfectly holy God, this Sovereign King whom you have so exquisitely offended, stands yet willing to receive you! Yet willing to come to terms of peace! Yet willing to cancel all of your debt, and look upon a Substitute, His own dear Son, for the satisfaction of infinite justice against your crimes. Turn from your sin, and trust Christ alone for righteousness.
As Edwards said at the close of his famous sermon:
And now you have an extraordinary opportunity,
a day wherein Christ has flung the door of mercy wide open,
and stands in the door calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners. …
Let everyone that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell,
whether they be old men and women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children,
now hearken to the loud calls of God’s Word and providence.