[Originally published on Helium and on blog, February and March 2009 respectively]
What happens when you die? Death and justice are perhaps the two largest reasons for the existence of religion. Just about all religions teach a system of rewards and punishments that occurs after you die.
For example, Buddhists teach that the punishment for sins is temporary and the soul is reincarnated afterwards. If one was good, then that soul may come back as a higher life form. If the individual has reached the state of enlightenment, then they go to Nirvana.
Mainstream Christianity, particularly Protestant evangelicalism, teaches that the rewards and punishments that are doled out in the afterlife are eternal. Supposedly, they get this teaching from the pages of the Bible. How can this be squared against the teaching that God is “good” and “just”, however? Is that what the Bible really says?
According to the Book of Genesis, God created human beings, male and female, in His image. However, he made them mortal. He instructed them not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil or that they would “surely die” (Ge 2:17). However, what did Satan, in the form of a serpent, tell them? “Ye shall not surely die” was his reply to Eve (Ge 3:4). This was the first recorded lie in the Bible. Now, stop and think about this. If a person dies, their life processes cease. In short, they stop moving. Their blood stops moving, their lungs stop moving, and their brain activity ceases.
However, the common teaching is that death isn’t really death. It seems that religious teachers have a habit of redefining words so they fit their theological framework. Instead of ceasing to exist, you live forever somewhere else. Yet, the Bible teaches that sinners are punished in a “second death” (Rev 20:14; 21:8). The Bible also does not teach that man has an immortal soul! The Bible says the soul that sins will die (Eze 18:4, 20)! John wrote that famous verse in John 3:16 that Jesus came so that those that believe on Him would not perish, not that He came to keep them from eternal torture.
Does the Bible mean what it says or not? Many religious teachers, instead of teaching what the Bible says, reiterate the lie that people will not surely die but have a type of immortality in a soul that lives on forever.
Let’s take this further. What are the logical consequences of the doctrine of eternal punishment? Do those consequences stack up against the Bible? Let’s look at some of these consequences and how they do not stack up against the God of the Bible.
- Eternal life is not a gift. If you are really just an immortal spirit inside of a body, then God cannot give you what you already have. Yet, Paul wrote in Romans 6:23 that “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ”.
- God is not just. Think about it. God made human beings finite. Even a person’s life processes eventually come to an end. What can a finite person possibly do to warrant infinite punishment? God says, “…Life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Dt 19:21). In other words, He commanded Israel that the punishment should fit the crime! At most, I can do more than take someone else’s life. Why then would my punishment for murder be more than my life?
- God is not compassionate. Is it written that “God so loved the world”? If God loves the world, then how can He sit up in Heaven knowing all the while that people are being tortured for an eternity? Why would He even create Hell? Is eternal torture consistent with love?
- God is either a sadistic monster or not omnipotent. 1/3rd of humanity claims Christianity as its religion. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say all of them really are saved and will go to Heaven when they die. That leaves a full 2/3rd that is destined for eternal torment in Hell. Yet, He does nothing about this. People still die having never heard the Gospel explained to them. This leaves us with 3 possibilities:
- God enjoys torturing people in Hell. He is doing this on purpose to get His jollies. Therefore, God is a sadistic monster.
- God doesn’t care. He is unloving (see #3), and this is His plan. It doesn’t matter how many go to Hell as long as a few get into Heaven. This boils down to creating human beings knowing full well that the majority of them will be eternally tortured in Hell. Therefore, God is still a sadistic monster.
- God is loving, and He cares. He is just incompetent and unable to stop it. Therefore, God is not omnipotent.However, the Bible says that God is “not willing that any should perish” (2Pe 3:9). He does not enjoy torture. He loves humanity and wants human beings to voluntarily join His family. Yet, He will not force anyone to choose His way of life. Instead, Jesus taught the resurrection. The saints will be resurrected as spirit beings. The rest of humanity who are dead will remain dead during His 1,000 year reign after Satan is put away. The rest of humanity will then be resurrected and the “books”, the Bible, will be opened to them for the first time (Rev 20:11-12). Most will choose life.
- Heaven isn’t a real reward. Heaven is supposed to be a place of eternal bliss. According to the traditional interpretation of the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, people in Heaven can look down on those in Hell and even hear them. Can you imagine a mother up in Heaven, listening to the shrieks of her drunkard son in Hell for all of eternity? Is this a real reward? Most people in this situation would probably choose to spend eternity in Hell with their loved ones than spend one second in Heaven.Of course, we are actually told that the reward of the saved is eternal life on the earth instead of Heaven (Mt 5:5; Rev 5:10), and the wicked will be ashes under our feet (Mal 4:3).
- Satan is more powerful than God. Satan is able to convince at least 2/3rd of humanity to rebel against God or prevent them from hearing the Gospel. However, the reality is that Satan is a created being. He cannot do anything God does not permit (Job 1-2). Satan has been thrown to earth before for his rebellion (Lk 10:18; Rev 12:3-4), and he will be defeated yet again (Rev 12:7-9; 20:1-3).
We can choose to believe the Bible or we can choose to believe in men’s traditions. If God is just, compassionate, loving, omnipotent and more powerful than Satan, then there is no ever burning ever tormenting Hell for the wicked. If eternal life is a gift, if eternal life is truly a reward, then Hell as taught cannot exist. If we instead believe in the resurrection and in the punishment of the wicked once and for all, then these problems are resolved. More importantly, they are what the Bible really teaches.
This is a trivial point, but the way I have always heard it stated is that God does not have eternal punishing. God does give eternal punishment – death. He is not punishing us continually by keeping us in constant pain.
@Mark: That’s a valid point, and I’ve said that before myself. It is a good summary statement.