"Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.' … And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
- Matthew 25:41,46
Probably the biggest problem people have with accepting the idea of eternal punishment is the degree of punishment compared to the crime. There are some unbelievably evil people out there, committing the most heineous acts. But surely, the sins of even the worst of humanity don't deserve eternal punishment in hell. There has to be a limit – a few days, a hundred years, even a billion years – and then the soul will have paid his dues and he can go free. That is how we think it should be.
Also, how can someone who tried to live a good life, and didn't do anything spectacularly wrong, but instead did a lot of good, be punished the same as a mass murderer? That sounds completely unfair.
The problem can be reduced to a mathematical equation – one that we are very familiar with:
[CRIME] = [PUNISHMENT]The punishment must fit the crime. It is not to be less than the crime deserves, and it is not to be more. Human judges give unjust sentences at times, but God certainly doesn't!
But there is a problem here. The equation is incomplete. Something is missing.
In today's society, the punishment for lying can vary greatly. If a child lies to his mother about taking a cookie from the cookie jar, the child might receive a slap on the hand, or be sent to his room. But if someone lies in a court of law, giving false testimony, the punishment might be several years in prison. If I lie to my dog and say I'm going to take him for a walk today when I don't intend on doing so, no punishment is involved. The difference in punishment has to do with who is being lied to. You don't send a child who stole a cookie to prison for 4 years for lying about it to his mother. Neither do you slap a perjurer's hands and send him to his room without supper for lying to the judge. Both are lying, but they are punished differently.
Mathematically, the equation should be modified to account for this:
[CRIME] x [OBJECT OF CRIME] = [PUNISHMENT]The object of the crime is the one against whom the crime was committed. The greater the person or authority this is, the greater the punishment.
This is where the necessity for eternal punishment comes in. We view our sins as primarily committed against our fellow human beings. But sin is really against an infinitely holy and righteous God, the Creator of all that is, the King of the universe (see Psalm 51:4). It matters not if the sin is big or little in our eyes; it is the same holy God whom we have sinned against. He is the Object against whom our sins have been committed.
[CRIME (SIN)] x [∞ (GOD)] = [PUNISHMENT (DEATH)]Because of this, the just punishment for our sins against God is infinite, whether the sins are big or little, because 0.01 times infinity is just as big a number as 10000 times infinity.
Instead of looking at our sins merely as bad things we have done, we need to see them as crimes against an infinite God. When we truly see sin for what it is, then we will see eternal punishment in hell (the "second death" of Revelation 20:14) as the justice that we deserve.
If we let the equation stand as it is, all hope is lost, for it would take us an infinite amount of time for us finite beings to pay for our sins. However, the equation is still missing something.
The Bible tells us that God does not desire the death of the wicked. It does not please Him to punish us. Instead He desires that we be reconciled to Him:
Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?
- Ezekiel 33:11
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
- 2 Peter 3:9
…God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. …
- 1 Timothy 2:3-4So God made a way for the equation to be modified. He sent His Son, Jesus, the One He loved (John 3:16), the Holy and Righteous One (Acts 4:27-28), to balance the equation by taking the punishment of our sins on Himself (Isaiah 53:5,10-12). Jesus Christ died a cruel death on a cross to pay the penalty for our sins. His death was foretold long before it happened, showing that it was all part of God's plan to save us. And when Jesus died, the equation became:
[CRIME (SIN)] x [∞ (GOD)] = [PUNISHMENT (DEATH)] x [JESUS' PAYMENT]But Jesus was not just a mere man, otherwise the equation would still not be balanced. No, Jesus is God in human flesh (Matthew 1:23, John 1:1,14), and only because of this can the equation be truly balanced:
[CRIME (SIN)] x [∞ (GOD THE FATHER)] = [PUNISHMENT (DEATH)] x [∞ (GOD THE SON)]Only the sacrifice of the infinitely holy and righteous Son of God can satisfy the justice of the infinitely holy and righteous God.
This balanced equation holds true for those who have repented of their sin and trusted in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. It means not only deliverance from some punishment, but deliverance from all punishment in hell, because Jesus paid the penalty for our sin in full (John 19:30). And yet more, it also means entrance into heaven, into God's presence for eternity, enjoying sweet fellowship with Him forever. 1
For those who continue to willfully reject Christ, the earlier equation still holds true. There is only one way to escape judgment, and if that is denied, then they must take the punishment themselves.
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, …
- 1 Timothy 2:5
See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.
- Hebrews 12:25
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.
- Hebrews 10:26-27So the choices are:
[CRIME (SIN)] x [∞ (GOD)] = [PUNISHMENT (DEATH)]or
[CRIME (SIN)] x [∞ (GOD THE FATHER)] = [PUNISHMENT (DEATH)] x [∞ (GOD THE SON)]Which equation do you come under?
…in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
- 2 Corinthians 5:19-21
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, …
- 1 Peter 3:18
But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
- Hebrews 2:9
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
- John 3:16
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
- Acts 17:30-31