Evangelical Conditionalism and Degrees of Punishment In Hell – Part 2

Having examined the underwhelming biblical case for eternal torment over evangelical conditionalism based on degrees of punishment in Part 1, a number of philosophical questions about God’s justice remain.

In Light of Eternity, Few Christians See Final Punishment As Truly Proportional

The traditionalist case is that final punishment is really only just if a worse sinner has a worse fate than a less wicked sinner, and that worse fate continues to be worse throughout eternity. Annihilation, of course, does not meet that standard.

However, this standard is not nearly as strong as it may sound at first. It is not a biblical view, so it does not have the firm, objective basis of scripture. Beyond that, eternal torment, within the framework of a Christian worldview, must concede more to the annihilationist view than many traditionalists realize. The effects of eternity and the concept of infinity take a lot of the force out of the traditionalist case here.

Infinity And The Non-Linear Relationship Between Sin and Punishment

If we assume that punishment is supposed to be proportional to the number and severity of sins, such that 1 sin = X amount of punishment and 2 sins = 2X punishment, this would be a problem for annihilationists because finite differences in conscious suffering, followed by the same fate for eternity, does not follow this model.

However, in practicality, few (I might dare say none) on either side really look at the fate of different sinners as being so starkly different.

Traditionalism, for the most part, relies on the belief that a single sin warrants infinite punishment (the weaknesses of the alternative traditionalist view will be discussed more below). As a result, both a mass murderer who committed suicide to avoid capture and the class clown who was generally nice to everyone and got killed by a drunk driver are both condemned to what is largely the same fate. Traditionally, this has meant being burned alive or subject to other grievous tortures, without rest, for ever and ever. But even softer, more modern views of eternal conscious hell have the same problem. Everyone goes to the same place/state of being sad about not choosing God or however it goes (I give the modern, fireless and tortureless versions of eternal conscious hell much less weight than the historical, fire and brimstone versions). 1 For more on the shortcomings of the softer version of eternal conscious hell put forth by many traditionalists today, see “The Many and Varied Problems with the Modern Metaphorical View of Eternal Conscious Hell.”

I do acknowledge that at any moment in time in traditionalist hell, there could theoretically be a very different level of suffering between a class A sinner and a class D sinner. I am not saying that the traditionalist claim about degrees of punishment is baseless. But the fact that the fire is not as hot or the weeping and gnashing of teeth out of regret are less intense is way less significant overall than the difference between having one sin held against you (unending misery and suffering) and having no sins held against you (unending love and joy and only good things). The fate in hell for the friendly old humanist who baked cookies and a serial rapist and killer of children are much more similar than many who appeal to degrees of punishment might be comfortable with if they were more consistent about the need for different eternal fates for different people based on their actions.

None of us see sin as linear, as though each additional unit of guilt carries the same unit of additional punishment (however that would work). Even a traditionalist would see the second sin on a person’s sin ledger (all this ledger talk is just meant for illustrations) as resulting in far less additional suffering than the first sin (since the first sin is what results in eternal damnation). Both sides must acknowledge that the first sin makes all the difference, and the effects of further sins are far less significant. Annihilationists just have to go even further with this idea (at least under this standard model, which I hold to, in which death is itself the ultimate penalty that results from sin). 2Some annihilationists hold to different models of how death and annihilation play into God’s justice and degrees of punishment. Alternative views may not have the same issues when it comes to the proportionality of sins to punishment for them. For example, some believe that the real penalty earned from sin is the shame/conscious suffering before death, and therefore this is proportional to the amount of sin. I do not believe these alternative views are correct, but this is worth noting.

The Breadth and Depth of Human Sin Justifies A Similar Fate For All Sinners

When it comes down to it, sinners are sinners. The Bible reminds us of this fact: “As it is written, ‘THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE’” (Romans 3:10). The human heart is full of evil (Genesis 8:21, Ecclesiastes 9:3). It is full of deceit (Jeremiah 17:9). Even at the beginning, when everyone knew exactly who God was and what he desired, men turned away, worshiping idols and engaging in every form of evil (Romans 1). These things are universal. Humans ultimately belong in two categories: God’s enemies, and God’s children.

If everyone who is not ultimately saved by the blood of Christ and reconciled to God is his enemy, then why would we not expect the same ultimate, eternal fate for all of God’s enemies?

In terms of finite actions, a mass murderer and a nice humanist grandma lived very different lives. But if not saved, both hate God and would want to defeat him. Who is to say that the nice old humanist would have been all that different from the mass murderer had she been born to the mass murderer’s parents at the same time and under the same life circumstances as the mass murderer?

From a practical standpoint, it doesn’t take much to make “good” people do evil. Didn’t the Israelites, God’s chosen people, burn their infants alive as a sacrifice to Molech for no real reason other than the fact that everyone else was doing it? How many “good” Germans either looked away or gleefully took part in the Holocaust, only to later look back at their own actions in disbelief? Stories like Lord of the Flies or Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” weren’t based on nothing. In an age of godless progressivism, acts of evil and cruelty (e.g. systematic theft, lying, honor killings, burning infidels alive) are now just chalked up to being part of a person’s “culture.” Even my American churches are full of women who kill their own unborn children and are called righteous and brave for doing so (including by men who want to be able to sleep around without consequences).

Consider even soccer matches worldwide. We are taught to laugh about how extreme fans throughout the world react, but think about it seriously. For no real reason other than their team losing (or winning), “good” people, including people who look like me and therefore are considered “civilized,” commit all kinds of evil. They destroy the property of others. They rape. They murder. And all of this is viewed as nothing but a big joke by outsiders. Just think about that. Really think about that.

Apart from the hand of God, the only difference between one nation or people group and another is which sins they choose do more often. Sin has become deeply embedded in every human being.

People don’t just go around sinning 24/7, and I believe that this is in no small part due to the fact that people are all made in the image of a truly and perfectly good God. But human nature has been so corrupted that when it comes to sin, it doesn’t take much to get us going. We talk about how “hurt people hurt people.” Many people who sexually abuse children were themselves sexually abused. But why? Why would someone having suffered something terrible make them more inclined to do that same bad thing to others, not less so? We talk about this phenomenon as being obvious, but it isn’t rational. It doesn’t follow simply from reason. So why does it happen?

It happens because of sin. Sin so warps the human heart that everything becomes an encouragement to sin. People sin because they are in pain. People sin because they are happy (like when the beautiful feeling of romantic love leads to premarrital sex). People sin due to need and also due to abundance (like Proverbs 30:7-9 talks about). People sin out of anger, out of stress, and even just callously out of boredom. Sin has so corrupted humanity that even as believers. we are taught to constantly be on guard, less we absentmindedly fall back into our old ways.

The only difference between the righteous and the wicked is the actions of the God. We are purified with Jesus’s blood, and the Holy Spirit takes hold of our hearts so we are reformed. We were once as the unrepentant wicked are now. All humans, apart from the acts of God, are thoroughly corrupted with sin and deserve to be thrown into the fire and burnt up like weeds. 3This idea isn’t unique to Calvinists, although Calvinists tend to be more emphatic about it; the idea that humans are sinful and deserving of damnation and that God alone gets the credit for loving us first and making us new creations is Christianity 101.

What If People Continue To Sin In Hell?

Up until now, we have talked about the view within traditionalism that says that people are condemned to eternal torment for their sins in this finite life. In my experience, this seems to be the standard view within Christendom. 4The historical dominance of this view is also asserted by English historian D.P. Walker: D.P. Walker, The Decline of Hell (University of Chicago, 1964), 24. But what about the view that some hold which teaches that in hell, people continue to sin and that is why hell is eternal conscious punishment? People aren’t suffering in hell for eternity because one sin warrants infinite punishment. Rather, people in hell will forever keep sinning and earning additional punishment faster than their punishment can cleanse them from guilt. There is infinite punishment because of infinite sinning.

Such a view changes the entire dynamic. On the plus side for this view, it eliminates the problem of infinity and makes punishment proportional (or at least allows for strict proportionality). Every sin can be judged differently and the level of punishment can be strictly tailored to it. So insofar as proportionality is considered an advantage, this view has an advantage over both annihilationism and the more standard traditionalist view.

Now, it should be noted that a lot of the arguments for traditionalism over annihilationism no longer apply if this view is correct. There is no longer any reason to appeal to a nice old lady who died believing in a vague higher power versus a child predator. After all, their punishment in hell is ultimately not based on what they do in this life. They might be punished for a little while for their sins on earth, but that would eventually end. And then for the rest of eternity, their punishment would be based on things they do in the next life. This life is just a blip on their eternity of sinning (and their eternity of earning additional punishment that keeps them in hell). Who is to say that the nice old granny wouldn’t eventually outsin the child predator and at some points in eternity be punished more severely as a result?

As a result, under this view of ongoing sin in hell, the declarations about greater condemnation, more lashes for the wicked servant, a more tolerable day of judgment, etc., would presumably become temporary, much like what annihilationism would entail. 5Interestingly, there have been some theologians who believed that the wicked kept cursing God in hell but, in light of their condition, were not given additional punishment for it and thus were still subject to eternal conscious punishment due to their wickedness in this life. For example, Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas: Second and Revised Edition, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1920), 2-2:13:4 and Supplement 98:6, reproduced at New Advent, n.d. https://www.newadvent.org/summa/5098.htm#article6 (accessed April 28, 2020). For more on this, see D.P. Walker, 23-26.

Reasons To Oppose This View

I won’t go into too much detail about why this view is incorrect, as that has been done here at Rethinking Hell already. 6 Chris Date, “No Penitent in Hell: A [Reformed] Response to D.A. Carson“. However, since you’re already here, I will point out some weaknesses to this view (beyond just the fact that the Bible teaches annihilationism, of course).

First, there really is no biblical case for it in the first place. One passage, Revelation 22:11, is taken out of context as though it is a declaration that in the eternal age, people will continue sinning or being righteous, rather than a command used rhetorically to describe the current state of things and emphasize how the events would come to pass soon (which is the immediate context of the verse). The angel saying “Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong…let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness” in verse 11 comes immediately after “And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near” in verse 10 and immediately before the Lord saying “behold, I come quickly” in verse 12.

Even at face value, a command to John in his current time would not seem to be indicating that in the age to come sinners keep sinning. The already developed belief that the wicked continue sinning forever in hell must be read into the passage.

The claim that the wicked keep sinning in hell (and thus keep earning more punishment) is largely an inference from one’s systematic theology. If people are sinful, and God does not regenerate them and make them holy in hell, then it follows that they keep sinning.

Of course, for an annihilationist, the reason why they stop sinning is rather obvious: they stop sinning because they are dead.

Secondly, this view at least seems to go against what the Bible actually does say about the finality of judgment. We see in Matthew 25:41-46, for example, that people are judged for their deeds on earth, and then, as traditionalists often remind us, are assigned to eternal fire and eternal punishment. When Jesus returns, he inflicts the penalty of eternal destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:9). But if hell is eternal conscious punishment not because sins on earth deserve eternal punishment but because people sin constantly forever, then people aren’t really sentenced to eternal anything based on what happened prior to judgment.

One might say that a single sin still warrants infinite punishment and also that the unsaved keep sinning in hell. But if that is the case, then you get the worst of both worlds. You no longer can appeal to punishment being proportional (finite sins now result in infinite punishment), and you also lose the ability to appeal to Hitler (assuming he never repented) and the late Granny Smith down the street (since there is no guarantee that their fates will not change over time as they keep sinning more).

Thirdly, along the lines of the second point, this continual-sinning view goes against the idea of one final judgment on the last day. If sinners are constantly sinning and therefore being assigned new punishments, then effectively, God is going through the act of judging them constantly throughout eternity. Why even have a final judgment on the last day, if there is no actual finality to it? What is even the point of having a grand judgment event, where results are based on this life, if judging must continue throughout eternity anyway?

At the very least, given its scant biblical basis and its own unique problems, the view that hell is eternal torment because of never-ending sinning after death is not a compelling reason to deny evangelical conditionalism, at least if there is strong reason elsewhere to believe that evangelical conditionalism is what the Bible teaches (which there most certainly is)

Concluding Thoughts

Some may not be satisfied with how evangelical conditionalism accounts for degrees of punishment. To some, it still may not seem adequately just for the worst of the worst to be destroyed and be dead for eternity in the same way as an unrepentant sinner who was much more benign. But this isn’t about philosophy. This isn’t about what is emotionally satisfying.

The case for eternal torment based on degrees of punishment just is not very compelling. I am not saying that it has no merit. What I am saying is that it should not give a student of scripture much pause when they see annihilation taught in the Bible.

Evangelical conditionalism may not separate the monsters of history from everyday sinners enough to satisfy some, but so be it. We don’t decide what is fair. God and only God can settle the accounts to make everything right. God and only God knows what is just. Isn’t that pretty much the first thing we are told if we start questioning the righteousness of God torturing people for ever and ever? I agree wholeheartedly with traditionalist  A.W. Pink on this matter:

But who are we to pass judgment upon the justice of the decisions of the All-Wise? Who are we to say what is consistent or inconsistent with God’s righteousness? Who are we to determine what shall best vindicate the Divine benevolence or equity? Sin has so enfeebled our power of righteous judgment, so darkened our understanding, so dulled our conscience, so perverted our wills, so corrupted our hearts, that we are quite incompetent to decide. We are ourselves so infected and affected by sin that we are altogether incapable of estimating its due merits. 7 A.W. Pink, Eternal Punishment, (n.p., 1940), 7-8, reproduced at archive.org, n.d., https://archive.org/details/EternalPunishment (accessed January 30, 2016).

It was true when Pink preached it to defend eternal torment, and it is just as true now.

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1. For more on the shortcomings of the softer version of eternal conscious hell put forth by many traditionalists today, see “The Many and Varied Problems with the Modern Metaphorical View of Eternal Conscious Hell.”
2. Some annihilationists hold to different models of how death and annihilation play into God’s justice and degrees of punishment. Alternative views may not have the same issues when it comes to the proportionality of sins to punishment for them. For example, some believe that the real penalty earned from sin is the shame/conscious suffering before death, and therefore this is proportional to the amount of sin. I do not believe these alternative views are correct, but this is worth noting.
3. This idea isn’t unique to Calvinists, although Calvinists tend to be more emphatic about it; the idea that humans are sinful and deserving of damnation and that God alone gets the credit for loving us first and making us new creations is Christianity 101.
4. The historical dominance of this view is also asserted by English historian D.P. Walker: D.P. Walker, The Decline of Hell (University of Chicago, 1964), 24.
5. Interestingly, there have been some theologians who believed that the wicked kept cursing God in hell but, in light of their condition, were not given additional punishment for it and thus were still subject to eternal conscious punishment due to their wickedness in this life. For example, Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas: Second and Revised Edition, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1920), 2-2:13:4 and Supplement 98:6, reproduced at New Advent, n.d. https://www.newadvent.org/summa/5098.htm#article6 (accessed April 28, 2020). For more on this, see D.P. Walker, 23-26.
6. Chris Date, “No Penitent in Hell: A [Reformed] Response to D.A. Carson“.
7. A.W. Pink, Eternal Punishment, (n.p., 1940), 7-8, reproduced at archive.org, n.d., https://archive.org/details/EternalPunishment (accessed January 30, 2016).
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