God’s character eliminates the possibility of everlasting torment. Where in Biblical history can it be found that God tortured or tormented his enemies? Has he ever given his enemies a hard time? Certainly. But God’s treatment of his enemies has always gone one of two ways: either bringing them to repentance, or to obliteration, in which he cleared the land of their horrifying practices.
The fact of God’s goodness, the fact that it is critical to his being, the fact that he proclaims his goodness and proves it repeatedly—this goodness is what makes everlasting torment seem bizarre, illogical, unnecessary, and blasphemous.
The following verses speak to the goodness of God. They will not likely convince non-believers of God’s goodness since it is first necessary to believe in their authority. But for all who do believe, they paint an overwhelming and important picture.
Exodus 34.6: The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abounding in goodness and truth.
1 Chronicles 16:34: Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.
Psalm 92.15: The Lord is upright; He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in Him.
Psalm 107.1: Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!
Psalm 107.8,9: Oh, that men would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men! For He satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with goodness.
Psalm 119:68: You are good and do good; teach me your statutes.
Psalm 145.5-7: I will meditate on the glorious splendor of Your majesty, and on Your wondrous works. Men shall speak of the might of Your awesome acts, and I will declare Your greatness. They shall utter the memory of Your great goodness, and shall sing of Your righteousness.
Psalm 145.17: The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.
Jeremiah 29.11-12: For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.
Lamentations 3.22-26: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.
Micah 6.8: He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Matthew 5.45,46: I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
Luke 6.35: Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.
Romans 5.8: But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 12:2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
1 John 1.5: This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.
1 John 4.7-12: Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
The classic counter-argument to the character of God argument is: “Who are you to judge God? Who are you to suggest that you are better able to judge the wicked than God is?” These are reasonable questions but they fail to recognize their own presumption. The questions fail to acknowledge that this “justice” attributed to God may well only be “justice” as defined by humans. As such, the questions apply equally, no matter which side of the question one may choose. No one is suggesting that God is unable or disinclined to judge justly. To the contrary, the conviction here is that God does judge justly. The conviction here is that our abilities to judge are limited in understanding and distorted by sin. The resolution to the opposing views must come by letting God speak for himself. The argument of God’s character remains a legitimate evidence for the debate about everlasting punishment.
I believe C.S. Lewis struggled with the severity of everlasting torment, as well. He wrote a book entitled, “The Great Divorce,” which was an imagining of the natures of hell and heaven. In the book he described hell as a place where people obtain exactly what they want, and that what they want is to have their own way. This self orientation manifested in obsessions over the faults of others, making others increasingly intolerable. The “solution” to the ever-growing irritation was for hell dwellers to regularly relocate themselves at greater distances from one another. The progression created hermits, and then, solipsists. Love, by choice, was obliterated.
I have several concerns with Lewis’ vision, however. Though what he describes is insightful in terms of graceless human behavior and, so, a wise warning for earthly behavior, there is no biblical basis for defining hell in this way. He attempts to deflect responsibility from God by making hell a product of human foolishness, but this sidesteps God’s word that says death is a punishment made clear to the rebellious on the day of Judgment. Furthermore, while his “resolution” seems like a tender alternative to, say, having one’s flesh eternally roasted, it remains a horrible sentence. No one could endure Lewis’ hell without eventually going insane and without eventually losing one’s humanity. Those who have been made in the image of God are not capable of survival outside of his presence (mentally or physically). Once humanity is lost in a person, the end must come. A finite human being cannot shrink forever.
I believe most Christians are uncomfortable with the idea of eternal torment. They prefer not to think about it. In my life I’ve heard thousands of sermons, and maybe one of those actually focused on the damnation of sinners. This is a bit embarrassing, I think. Jesus certainly did not shrink from the subject. Most biblical Christians believe in everlasting torment for the wicked, but they believe it because of a perception of it belonging within the canon of orthodoxy. Throw out one bit of dogma and all dogma becomes suspect, seems to be the mindset. It’s not wrong to be conservative about theology. One should not hastily cast aside thousands of years of input from Christians who have come before.
However, there are counter-arguments. The first is that there is a notable minority of orthodox Christians who do not believe that hell is a place of everlasting torment. There would certainly be a larger minority if the subject would actually be given more exposure. Pastors tend to avoid controversies, where possible. This lack of exposure has allowed most Christians to simply default to historical doctrinal confessions, most of which were guided on this subject by Dante Alighieri, who wrote fine fiction over 700 years ago.
The other argument is this: the Church can remain in error on a subject for a long time. For centuries the Church thought it was a good and spiritual idea to conduct Crusades into Palestine in order to capture Jerusalem for Christendom. Another pervasive falsehood is the concept of Purgatory, with the accompanying idea that various good deeds on earth can shorten the time spent there. Another example is that, for some time, it was considered good practice to burn heretics at the stake. Another example is that when we have arguments within the church, we solve them by forming new denominations. Christians believe in sin; we should hardly be surprised that false ideas can persist within the Church. There are many reasons why the Church has maintained the idea of everlasting torment of the wicked. What is missing is good biblical support for those reasons. Solomon Stoddard said, “It may be a fault to depart from the ways of our fathers; but it may also be a virtue, and an eminent obedience to depart from them in some things.”
Martin Luther struggled mightily with guilt, and with the need to be acceptable to God. While his mentor assured him of God’s love and that Luther was making much of his small sins—sins that other people were not even bringing to mind, Luther could not convince himself of his worthiness. This was all bound up in his belief that God’s righteousness was made manifest through his punishment of the wicked. But then Luther began to wrestle with the meaning of two biblical passages. The first, Psalm 31.1, said, “deliver me in your righteousness”. And then, more significantly, he wrestled with Romans 1.17, where it says that the righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel. If God’s righteousness is his justice, how can it bring salvation or be a part of the Gospel?
“Night and day I pondered until…I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love.”
This idea of salvation by grace alone, rather than by works, was the match that ignited the Protestant Reformation, and had much to do with reforms in the Roman Catholic church, as well. Of course, salvation as a gift of God does not logically eliminate the possibility that God will punish the wicked. Luther did not think so, nor has the Church, in general. Nor does Jesus, who spoke of the punishment of the wicked on many occasions.
It does say, though, and this should not be overlooked, that the heart of God is one of forgiveness and grace. God is tender-hearted. If he punishes, it is to protect the innocent and the weak from their oppressors, and from the apathetic. But even the oppressors and the apathetic are persons created in His image. He loves them, as well. How he punishes them must be in accord with his own nature. Even fallen humans recognize a difference between punishment and torture.
I have heard it argued that everlasting punishment is a just punishment because of the extent of the sin of the crucifixion of Jesus. Since Jesus was and is perfect, and because he was and is God, to crucify him is a sin of infinite proportions.
There are two problems with this argument. The first is that only a few committed the sin. It is probably true that Jesus would have been crucified by humans no matter where or when he would had lived. In this sense, the Jews and Romans who killed him serve as representatives of the human race. However, it is a logical leap to suggest that the entire human race deserves everlasting punishment for the acts of this small group of men. The Bible teaches that through Adam and Eve, humanity fell, became sin-infected, and was assigned the punishment of death. It further teaches that Jesus is the second Adam and that his work of redemption removed the curse from all who would trust in him. There are no biblical grounds for assigning universal guilt for the crucifixion in the way that Adam and Eve’s sin was assigned.
Furthermore, we must not overlook the prayer Jesus made on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Is it possible that the Father would deny this prayer? We have the privilege of hearing a number of Jesus’ prayers. They all are answered in accordance with the prayers spoken. In Gethsemane Jesus prayed in a provisional way: “Take this cup from me, but not my will but yours be done.” Jesus’ prayer on the cross included no such provision. The Bible makes clear that the sin of crucifying the one sinless person in world history, heinous as it was, was forgiven. The argument that sinners must endure everlasting punishment because of the crucifixion is devoid of reason and contrary the Word of God.
We know in our hearts that torture is evil. We know that everlasting torture is an evil more horrible than any evil done in human history. We do not say that God could not do it in the sense that it is beyond his power. But what we can say is that God could not do it because it is outside of and contrary to his character.
We worship the God of love; we do not worship the god of torment. Worship is a two-sided coin. It is good to worship God because this is to give him due honor. But when we worship we also proclaim that we would emulate him. Is it possible that Christians will stand and cheer at the sight of people in everlasting torment? Will there be tours? Will this give us joy? I say, if you think this is possible, you need to look deep into your soul and ask whether you actually know this God who sent his only Son to be sacrificed for your sake.