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 The Judicial Implications of Eternal Torment 

Contrary to the Biblical Vision of Justice. The traditional view of hell is challenged today also on the basis of the Biblical vision of justice. As John Stott concisely and clearly puts it: "Fundamental to it [justice] is the belief that God will judge people ‘according to what they [have] done’ (e.g., Rev 20:12), which implies that the penalty inflicted will be commensurate with the evil done. This principle had been applied in the Jewish law courts in which penalties were limited to an exact retribution, ‘life for life, eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot’ (e. g., Ex 21:23-25). Would there not, then, be a serious disproportion between sins consciously committed in time and torment consciously experienced throughout eternity? I do not minimize the gravity of sin as rebellion against God our Creator, but I question whether ‘eternal conscious torment’ is compatible with the Biblical revelation of divine justice."89

It is difficult for us to imagine what kind of rebellious lifestyle could deserve the ultimate punishment of everlasting, conscious torment in hell. As John Hick puts it, "Justice could never demand for finite sins the infinite penalty of eternal pain; such unending torment could never serve any positive or reformative purpose precisely because it never ends; and it renders any coherent Christian theodicy [that is, the defense of God’s goodness in view of the presence of evil] impossible by giving the evils of sin and suffering an eternal lodgment within God’s creation."90

The notion of unlimited retaliation is unknown to the Bible. The Mosaic legislation placed a limit on the punishment that could be inflicted for various kinds of harm received. Jesus placed an even greater limit: "You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you" (Matt 5:38-39). Under the ethics of the Gospel, it is impossible to justify the traditional view of eternal, conscious torment because such a punishment would create a serious disproportion between the sins committed during a lifetime and the resulting punishment lasting for all eternity.

Part of the problem is that as human beings we cannot conceptualize how long eternity is. It is impossible for us to image what eternal torment really means. We measure the duration of human life in terms of 60, 70, and in few cases 80 years. But eternal torment means that after sinners have agonized in hell for a million years, their punishment has hardly began. Such a concept is beyond human comprehension.

Some reason that if the wicked were to be punished by annihilation, "it would be a happy relief from punishment and therefore no punishment at all."91 Such reasoning is appalling, to say the least. It implies that the only just punishment that God can inflict upon the unrighteous is the one that will torment them eternally. It is hard to believe that divine justice can be satisfied only by inflicting a punishment of eternal torment. The human sense of justice regards the death penalty as the most severe form of punishment that can be imposed for capital offenses. There is no reason to believe that the divine sense of justice should be more exacting by demanding more than the actual annihilation of the unrighteous. This is not a denial of the principle of degrees of accountability which, as we shall see, determines the "gradation" of the suffering of the lost. The punitive suffering, however, will not last forever; it will terminate with the annihilation of the lost.

Contrary to the Human Sense of Justice. Scholastics, like Anselm, tried to justify the notion of infinite punishment by arguing that sins committed against the infinite majesty of God deserve eternal punishing. Such reasoning may have been acceptable in the feudalist society of the Middle Ages, where the human value of the serfs who lived at the bottom of the social pyramid faded in comparison with the value of the king, who lived at the top. But today, as Pinnock points out, "We do not accept inequalities in judgment on the basis of the honor of the victim, as if stealing from a doctor is worse than stealing from a beggar. The fact that we have sinned against an infinite God does not justify an infinite penalty. No judge today would calibrate the degree of punishment on a scale of the honor of the one who has been wronged. The old arguments for hell as everlasting punishing do not work."91

Furthermore, eternal torment serves no positive, reformative purpose, simply because it only torments sinners without reforming them. Such a notion only exhibits a vindictiveness on the part of God, which is clearly contradicted by what Jesus has revealed to us about His Father’s love for the lost. Hans Küng correctly points out that at a time when our penal and educational systems are gradually abandoning the notion of retributive punishments without opportunity of probation and rehabilitation, "the idea not only of a lifelong, but even eternal punishment of body and soul, seems to many people absolutely monstrous."93

The traditional view of hell is based on the concept of retributive justice, which requires sinners to pay back to God all that they owe and beyond. This view portrays God as the ultimate harsh, exacting, and unappeasable Judge. Annihilation, on the other hand, portrays God as reasonable and fair. People who refuse to obey Him and to accept His provision for their salvation will be visited with the punishment they deserve, namely, utter extinction.

The issue we are addressing is not whether or not the wicked ultimately will be punished by God. Rather, the issue is whether the wicked will be punished with endless suffering or whether they will perish and become extinct after suffering whatever degree of pain God may inflict upon them. In our view, the latter better harmonizes with the overall Biblical teaching and vision of justice.


Gradation of the Punishment. Extinction does not exclude the possibility of degrees of punishment. The principle of degrees of accountability based on the light received is taught by Christ in several places. In Matthew 11:21-22, Christ says:"Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you" (cf. Luke 12:47-48). The inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon will be treated more leniently in the final judgment than those of Bethsaida, because they had fewer opportunities to understand the will of God for their lives.

Christ alludes to the same principle in the parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Servants: "And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more" (Luke 12:47-48). In the final judgment, each person will be measured, not against the same standard, but against his own response to the light received (see Ezek 3:18-21; 18:2-32; Luke 23:34; John 15:22; 1 Tim 1:13; James 4:17).

Millions of persons have lived and are living today without the knowledge of Christ as God’s supreme revelation and means of salvation. These people may find salvation on account of their trusting response to what they know of God. It is for God to determine how much of His will is disclosed to any person through any particular religion.

In Romans 2, Paul explains that "when Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus" (vv. 14-16).

It is because God has written certain basic moral principles into every human conscience that every person can be held accountable—"without excuse" (Rom 1:20)—in the final judgment. A pleasant surprise will be to meet among the redeemed "heathen" who never learned about the Good News of salvation through human agents. Ellen White states this point eloquently: "Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God."94

                 [PART 9 - The Cosmological Implications of Eternal Torment