Is Hell Eternal?

I’ve written about the awful idea of hell elsewhere, and those keenly interested in a proper discussion of it can look HERE.

On Facebook recently, however, some friendly folk from the “Rethinking Hell” website and confraternity engaged me in clarifying where we agree and disagree. My reply might interest you, so here it is:

• I am certainly not wedded to the term “terminal punishment.” It isn’t even of my own coinage. I came to the Houston celebration of Edward Fudge’s legacy with “just punishment” as my preferred term, but became more aware of its limitations and overheard someone use “terminal punishment” instead. That struck me as better, so I adopted it. But I’m always open to having the terminology improved.

• “Conditionalism” and “conditional immortality” continue to strike me as inferior terms in this debate because they focus on the redeemed, on those who are not destined for eternal punishment, while the nub of the debate is on the destiny of the lost. They also, by your own lights, have the demerit of being even less connected with Biblical terminology than “terminal punishment.” But I myself am not committed to using “as Biblical a term as possible” as a theological rule, but rather “the most appropriate term available,” so I merely tease you about this latter point!

• “Terminal punishment” is, I grant, ambiguous on the point about the everlastingness/eternality of punishment. But I think the ambiguity is unavoidable, since we all agree that the punishment does end (as an experience) even as it does not end (as a condition). What “terminal punishment” does well, I think, is clearly challenge the idea of “eternal torment” via “terminal”—which, I suggest, is the dominant concern in this debate—even as it also challenges universalism via “punishment”—so that hell isn’t turned into some sort of purgatory.

• I respectfully suggest that the New Testament’s reduction of the work of Christ to “the Cross” or to his death is pretty clearly synecdoche. These epitomes of what Jesus underwent for us open up to the whole of his Passion. (I don’t agree that they contain the resurrection, which plays a different role in the economy of salvation: primarily the rescue of Jesus from death, yes, but also his validation as Christ and his example as Son of Man—the firstborn from the dead—of the eventual resurrection of all God’s people.)

Let us note in this wise that Jesus dies on a cross, the most lingering mode of judicial execution in the Roman repertoire. It is an experience of public *suffering*—of pain, yes, but also of shame, loneliness, and more—not merely termination of life. Suffering is a constant motif in Biblical references to the work of Messiah, whether Isa. 53, Jesus’ initial statement of his destiny at Caesarea Philippi, and so on. So we must not focus on Jesus’ death to the diminishment, let alone exclusion, of his suffering…and thus must keep both suffering and death in view when it comes to those not availing themselves of the substitutionary work of Christ.

I agree with you that death is also part of the punishment entailed by our sin. And that brings up a crucial idea here: that what we undergo, if we do not avail ourselves of Christ’s work for us, is the strict entailment of our sin: pain and death, both. We suffer in accordance with the damage we have done to the universe; we die because (per Genesis 3) we have walked away from God, the Source of Life. I trust you will agree with me that we do not see God as smiting people who don’t agree with him (per certain caricatures) but overseeing, as Judge who is the Guarantor of goodness, the consequences that are simply entailed by our sin.

People thus don’t suffer and die in hell because God chooses to torture and kill them. Suffering and death are the sheer consequences in this moral universe of our sins and sinfulness.

(Whether God acts mercifully on sinners and reduces their sentence in terms of suffering is not an idea for which I find support in Scripture. Indeed, it is not obvious on what basis God *can* do that in the final accounting of things. God “passes over” some sins in this life, yes, without according transgressors exact payback for their sins, but that patience and mercy are pending the final accounting.

Instead, if one rejects the mercy of God in Christ, one can expect strict justice: “few blows” or “many blows” per one’s accumulated account of transgressions, yes, and also per the wretched state of one’s heart.
But I’m open to correction on this point, as on any other.)

In sum, how about this:

We continue to disagree on the general term we use (!) and here’s hoping a new term can unite us. We shouldn’t disagree on “suffering + death” as sinners’ just deserts that Christ lovingly underwent for us. We agree that God does not mete out eternal torment, but instead supervises each one whose name is not written in the book of life to undergo his or her just deserts per the *other* books that are opened (Rev. 20). And we agree that the punishment unredeemed sinners face is indeed eternal…as a condition, but not as a conscious experience.

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