What does the Bible really teach about eternal punishment?
"...I think no other doctrine can even compete with "no further chances" in terms of the following three factors. No doctrine even comes close to a) being so strongly believed by so many evangelicals despite b) being so utterly disastrous in its consequences and c) having so little by way of Scriptural support." - Keith DeRose
Beginning with the book of Matthew we will look at what the New Testament teaches about punishment and hell.
The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matt 3:10).
Punishment is mentioned but nothing is mentioned about eternal punishment. See if you can spot eternal punishment in the following:
And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell (Matt 5:30)
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matt 6:14-15).
Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' (Matt 7:23)
They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 13:42).
"Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' (Matt 22:13)
But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, 'My master is staying away a long time,' and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 24:48-51).
Keep in mind that if God thinks something is very important, and He wants us to understand it, He repeats the lesson over and over again. Isn't it odd that He does not do this regarding "eternal punishment" considering it is such a weighty issue? (This is even more interesting when you look at how many verses in the New Testament talk about "all" being saved and "all" things being made new.)
Many people get confused about the nature of the suffering in Hell because they read verses which tell them that the fire is eternal and then combine those verses with others which talk about suffering. But how many verses actually say the suffering is eternal? Once they stop combining the verses which tell us about the fire and those verses which talk about suffering the case for eternal suffering suddenly becomes very shaky.
If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell (Matt 18:8-9).
Note: Eternal fire is mentioned but not specifically eternal suffering.
What is the nature of an eternal place?
If a building is eternal, does it follow that you cannot enter the building? No. Does it follow that after you have entered the building you cannot leave it? No. Why? Because we are talking about the building not about you. The Bible paints a description of a waste land outside the New Jerusalem, a place of torment. The fire is eternal (Rev 20:14). Now it is possible that the smoke from that place will rise forever. But that does not undermine what I believe is the Biblical position. If the smoke rises forever it would be a powerful reminder of God's grace which is shown to all people. This picture fits beautifully with what I know of the God who loves everyone and everything. His love is without conditions. Now compare that explanation with what I think is a better one. Keith DeRose, a professor of philosophy at Yale, claims that "for ever and ever" is not a good translation of Rev 20:10. A more literal translation is "for the eons of the eons". In other words for a very long time. Unfortunately, the second death will occur in the lake of fire for a lot of people (Rev 20:15), but it does not follow that their suffering will last "forever and ever". (See Universalism and the Bible: The Really Good News by Keith DeRose and Universalism: A Summary Defence by Richard Beck)
The following verse is interesting. Why say, "in this age or the age to come"? Why not simply say "will not be forgiven"? It makes it look as though the same rules apply to this life and that which follows.
"And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come." (Matt 12:31-32. It is important to note that there is only one thing for which a person cannot be forgiven, unrepentance. A person who continually ignores the Holy Spirit is in an unrepentant state of being. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin (John 16:7-11), while we purposefully ignore him we cannot be forgiven. (Blaspheme means to show irreverence or disrespect towards someone or something which is holy). When someone ignores the Holy Spirit they are showing irreverence and disrespect for him. The verse cannot mean what many claim it means. Someone who purposefully worships Satan and credits the good things of God to Satan can repent and be forgiven. Our words and actions merely reflect what is in our hearts. No single act or word can make God give up on anyone.)
Below is a verse which seems to support eternal punishment.
"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (Matt 25:46)
This is where good hermeneutics really is key (see New Testament Words by William Barclay)
As mentioned, if God thinks an issue is of great importance, one which He wants us to clearly understand, He repeats it often to make sure we get the message. The fact that endless punishment "may be" implied only once in the Greek Gospel of Matthew has a practical and spiritual consequence. Consider many of the early Christians who were blessed to get their hands on any one of the Gospels. Do you think it was of importance that they correctly understood the nature of the punishment that awaited those who did not turn and follow Christ in this life?
How should we interpret the Bible? Should we interpret verses like Col 1:20 and 1 Timothy 4:10 in light of passages like Luke 16:19-31 or should we interpret passages like Luke 16:19-31 in light of verses like Col 1:20 and 1 Tim 4:10?
What verses should be interpreted by what? There are many tensions in the Bible. (For the tensions between the Calvinist view, the Arminan view and the Universalist view see The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald. The forward, introduction and first chapter of 2nd edition of The Evangelical Universalist is avaliable for free through amazon.) No view is problem free. The issue is, which view has the least problems?
How we interpret the Bible is very important. If we really believe God is good we will approach the Bible a particular way.
Imagine for a moment that you have a friend named John. You have known him for years and sincerely believe that he is honest, kind and trustworthy. One day you hear on the news that John is on trial for the murder of many small children. The murders occurred over a period of years and each child died painfully and slowly under the hands of someone who was very cruel. You meet someone in the street and they say, "Did you hear about John? What a bastard. What kind of a person does that to children?" How would you react? Now you wouldn't say something like, "Yeh, it's incredible. Hard to believe really. I've known John for years and it just goes to show that you think you know somebody but you really don't." For if you said something like that you don't really believe he is good. But because you believe John is good you'd probably say something like, "No, John's not like that. They've got the wrong person. This is all a big mistake."
Now you could come to John's defence in another way, you might say, "John is good. If he killed small children then they must have deserved it." That is one way you could defend John, but wouldn't that simply reveal that you have a rather odd sense of what is just and fair?
Calling something good does not make it good. The God of the Bible is not arbitrary. Something is not good because God does it; rather God does that which is good. If we mistakenly believe that God does something and then call it good because we think that God does it, we may be calling something which is evil good and attributing that evil action to God.
If we believe someone is good we are quick to believe that they do good things and slow to believe that they have done bad things. Is it not strange, that many who claim to believe God is good are quick to believe that he can make a person suffer without any hope of redemption or complete annihilation? When it comes to endless suffering, isn't it time we started saying, "There must be some kind of mistake. God is good. He loves everyone and his love is eternal and unconditional. Love always hopes, love always perseveres. If he warns he warns because of love and if he punishes he punishes because of love. Surely the Bible must be being mishandled!"
(A digression: We must remember that God did not arbitrarily determine what is to be called good, good has always existed because God has always existed. God does what is good because it is part of his eternal unchanging character. Natural law (that which tells us what is good) is not greater than God because it did not exist before God, it is part of His nature. (Note: The Mosaic law is not natural law but the Mosaic law was based upon natural law. For more on natural law see Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.))
To interpret the Bible rightly we must think deeply about God's character and use logic in light of His character. We must also allow the majority of scripture to interpret the minority.
The view that God will eventually save all people makes a lot more sense of what we see in the world than the view that God gives up on some people. I used to wonder why the early Church prayed for the dead. It only makes sense if they believed that there is some hope for the dead. Another issue worth considering is the kindness the early Christians showed unbelievers who lost loved ones. Christians took part in the burial of many non-believers and because of the kindness they showed, many pagans came to Christ. I don't think the Christians were telling the unbelievers that their loved ones were in Hell. If the issue of where their loved one was came up I think they would have said something like, "they are in God's hands and God loves them. If they are suffering it is for their good." (See page 96 in the following Encyclopedia. Do you think that most of the earlier Church had it wrong?) You might ask, "Why then is the cross offensive?" It is because no one wants to be told that they are sinners, nor do they want to be told that they must change the way they live their lives (i.e. repent).
Our God is a consuming fire. Death and Hades will be destroyed.
This is a work in progress.