Credible Faith

The Explanation of Jesus Why Eternal Torment In Hell Is Just

Paul explains how the moral teachings of Jesus show that the doctrine of hell is just and accordingly why Jesus taught the doctrine.

Text Publication: December 17, 2018

Text Changes/Revisions: May 29, 2020

Audio Publication: December 17, 2018

Video Publication: December 17, 2018

Author(s): Paul Larson

Hey, there! Welcome to Credible Faith. One of the biggest objections to the Christian faith is the doctrine that God is going to condemn people to hell for eternity. Many times, we human beings struggle with the question of how a loving God can allow human beings to cause horrendous pain and suffering to each other on earth, but the doctrine of hell makes it even harder to believe that God is good. Much of the pain and suffering on earth happens when one person does evil to someone else, so someone might try to say that God can still be good because he is only permitting the evil. He is supposedly not the person directly causing the evil. Now, whether or not that line of thinking succeeds in exonerating God, it does not apply to the traditional conception of hell. In hell, God is the one who actively causes pain and suffering; he is not just allowing someone else to cause pain and suffering.

On top of that, the pain and suffering that we experience on earth is limited to just this short life. But the pain and suffering of hell is infinite. Even if we thought of some reasons why a loving God might allow evil and suffering for a limited time, some of those reasons might not apply to him causing pain and suffering for eternity. So if the problem of pain and suffering in this world is a major barrier to believing the Christian faith, the doctrine of hell would be even a bigger barrier.

Now, we can not cross into the realm of the dead right now and confirm with our own eyes that hell actually exists, so if hell is such a big barrier to believing the Christian faith, why do Christians even believe the doctrine? One of the main reasons why Christians believe the doctrine of hell is that Jesus taught it, and God showed that he approved what Jesus taught by raising Jesus from the dead. But if Jesus taught the doctrine of hell, is it possible that he also explained why he thought that the doctrine of hell is just? I think that if we look at what he taught, we can indeed find, scattered among the different teachings that he gave, an explanation of why he thought that the doctrine of hell is just.

The short answer to that question is that Jesus taught that we deserve eternal punishment because we have sinned, but someone might object that eternal punishment in hell is way too much punishment for our limited sins here on earth. How can it be just that a finite act of sin would justify an infinite amount of suffering in hell? How can someone even think that, if you have lived an outwardly upstanding life, if you have never committed any horrendous crimes, if you have even lived what many would call a good life, that you deserve to be sent to hell forever?

On a surface level, I can sympathize with someone who feels that way, but Jesus actually gives us three principles of moral philosophy that should cause us to look at the matter differently. I think that these three principles are clearly true, whether Jesus had taught them or not. I also think that these principles of moral philosophy provide us with a three-part argument that shows that a finite sin on earth can indeed deserve eternal punishment. So before you reject the doctrine of hell as ridiculous or offensive, let us give Jesus a full hearing and consider the explanation of Jesus why the doctrine of eternal torment in hell is just.

Let us start with the three principles of moral philosophy that Jesus taught and also look at each part of the argument that corresponds to each principle. After looking at all three principles and all three parts of the argument, we will walk through each one of them individually in some detail. Here are the principles and the three-part argument that hell is just:

1. We are morally guilty not only for the sins that we have committed externally in our life, but also for the sins that we would commit if we were placed in different circumstances. Thus, we are guilty not only for the particular sins that we have committed, but also for the other sins that we would have committed if the situation had been changed to one in which our selfish and evil heart would have chosen those sins.

2. We are either completely righteous or completely wicked at any given time; we can not be committed to doing evil in one area and committed to doing good in other areas at the same time. Thus, in times when we committed sin, there is no other sin, however great or horrible, that we would not have also committed at that time if the situation were changed to one in which the cost/benefit analysis of our selfish heart would favor that sin. If we are guilty of all sins that we would commit (principle #1), then committing one sin would thus make us guilty of committing all other sins (principle #2).

3. Sin is blind to consequences for others. Thus, there is no limit to the number of people we would have harmed or the amount of harm we would have done in those other sins that we would have committed and for which we are morally guilty. There is therefore no limit to the punishment we deserve, as any given amount of punishment in hell would find its justification in the persons we would have harmed and/or the harm we would have done.

That is the argument for why eternal torment in hell is just, but we still have not really looked closely at what Jesus taught and how that teaching justifies the three parts of the argument. Let us do that now.

The first principle of moral philosophy that Jesus taught is that a man is guilty not only for the sins that he has committed externally in his own life, but also for the sins that he would commit if he were placed in different circumstances. It is common to think that we are only guilty for a crime when we are actually put in a situation in which we physically commit that crime in the external world, and so our human tendency would be to think that people who committed horrendous crimes deserved punishment for such crimes only after the crimes were committed in the external world.

But Jesus did not share that view, and a little reflection shows that Jesus was clearly right. Jesus said that if a man looks at a woman lustfully, then he has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mt. 5:27-28). Jesus indicated that, though it had been said in the past not to commit murder, even a man who hated his brother in his heart would be subject to judgment (Mt. 5:21-22). Man looks at the outward appearance and actions, but God looks at the heart, and rightly so (1 Sam. 16:7).

Jesus is here recognizing a truth that should be plain to all of us. If I have the opportunity to steal a car, and if the only reason that I do not steal the car is because I am scared of getting caught, then the ultimate commitment of my heart is selfish and evil. I would steal the car because my ultimate allegiance is to myself above what I know is right, but because the costs to myself of getting caught seem to outweigh the benefits, that selfish allegiance to myself also stops me from stealing the car. In either case, whether I steal the car or not, my decision is an expression of the same evil intention of my heart to put myself above what I know is right. I am committed in my heart to satisfying my own desires even if those desires are wrong. The internal commitment of my heart is the exact same if I steal the car or if I do not steal it. Since a man's moral guilt is determined by the character of the intentions of his heart and not by his external circumstances, this means that I am guilty of stealing the car as long as there is some external circumstances in which I would steal it. Put differently, as long as the internal commitment of my heart is to myself above what I know is right, then I am guilty of stealing the car.

The same is true for other sins. The man who lusts at a woman is guilty of committing adultery with her because the intentions and commitments of his heart are such that he would commit that act if the cost/benefit analysis of his external circumstances were to change. The selfish commitments of his heart would cause him to commit the act in the right circumstances, but those same selfish commitments would stop him from carrying it out if he thinks that the costs to himself would be too great. Since his moral guilt is determined by the intentions of his heart and not by his external circumstances, he is guilty of adultery even if he never carries out that sin in the external world.

His seemingly "moral" exterior life is a direct result of his inwardly selfish and evil heart. This is why it is absolutely paramount that we examine what we have or have not done in our hearts rather than merely look at what we have or have not done in the external world. The sins for which we are guilty are what we would have done if the situation were different and the cost/benefit analysis of a sin changed. That is the first principle of moral philosophy that Jesus taught, and it means that all of us have done far more evil than we would like to admit.

Now, you might be willing to admit that you are morally guilty of some particular sin because you would have committed that sin if the benefits had outweighed the costs. 'But,' you might say, 'just because I would have committed that one sin, that does not mean that I would have committed other sins nor that I would have committed really horrendous evils. Maybe ruthless dictators who kill millions of people deserve hell, but surely I am not guilty of those horrendous evils just because I might be willing to tell a small lie to my boss if that lie would save my job, right?'

Here is where we come to the second principle of moral philosophy that Jesus taught, and the second part of the argument why eternal torment in hell is just: You are either completely righteous or completely wicked at any given time; you can not be committed to doing evil in one area and committed to doing what is right in other areas at the same time. This principle can be seen in the teaching of Jesus in the way he repeatedly separates humanity into only two groups. He refers to the wicked and the righteous, the just and the unjust, the sheep and the goats (Mt. 25:31-46), the house built on rock and the house built on sand (Mt. 7:24-27), the wheat and the weeds (Mt. 13:24-30), good fish and bad fish (Mt. 13:47-50), the good tree and the bad tree (Mt. 7:17-20). Jesus often connects these designations to the eternal fate of people. He leaves no room for a third group. You are either righteous or unrighteous, either good or evil, either just or unjust.

If we look further, we can see that Jesus speaks this way because it is impossible for the heart to be divided in its allegiance. A man who tolerates one sin, however small it is, demonstrates that the reason he does not commit big sins or other sins is not that he is committed to doing right. His supposedly small sin shows that he has no such commitment. If he were committed to doing what is right because it is right, then he would always do what is right, and would not tolerate any sin, however big or small that sin might be.

But when a man sins, there is something else that commands his highest allegiance. That can be good health. It can be sex, or money, or power, or pleasure, or fame. But whatever it is, it will be focused on himself. If it is power, it is power for himself. If it is money, it is money for himself. Thus, when a man sins, the root of that sin is ultimately selfishness, and the person who accepts even one sin, whatever sin it is, and however big or small it seems, shows that he has a greater commitment to himself than to what is right. Or more accurately, he shows that he has no commitment at all to what is right but is completely committed to himself.

It was in light of this that Jesus said that if a man's eye was single, that is, if his eye was good, his whole body would be full of light, but if a man's eye were evil, then his whole body would be full of darkness (Mt. 6:22-23). In the very next verse, Jesus says that no one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other (Mt. 6:24; Lk. 16:13). The Gospel of Luke has basically the exact same statement, but then Jesus states that you cannot serve both God and money. Of course, no one serves money. Money is merely the way that you can get things for yourself. So in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is basically saying that you cannot serve God and serve yourself at the same time. Selfishness is incompatible with loving God. It is also incompatible with loving others.

Thus, Jesus gives only two options: either a man is completely dedicated to what is holy and right or a man is completely selfish. There is no middle ground, nor a mixing of selfishness and righteousness. This explains why Jesus so frequently separates humanity into just two groups of people.

This also is why I conclude that when we commit one sin, there is no other sin, however great or evil, that we would not also commit if the situation were changed. And if committing one sin means that we would commit all other sins if put in the right circumstances, then committing one sin means that we would be guilty for all those other sins according to the first principle of moral philosophy of Jesus that I examined earlier.

Let me try explaining that conclusion in a different way. If our heart is either completely selfish or completely righteous at any given time, and if the very essence of our choosing to commit one sin is making ourselves our highest and sole allegiance above what we know is right, then for any particular other sin, the reason that we do not commit that other sin can't be that we are committed to doing what is right. We have already rejected such a commitment to what is right in choosing to make ourselves our highest allegiance.

So the reason that we do not commit some other sin is that we either do not have the opportunity to do so, or the costs are greater than the benefits. But we have already seen that not having the opportunity to commit a sin does not make us innocent of that sin, since according to the first principle of moral philosophy, we are morally guilty for the sins that we would commit if put in the right circumstances. The same is true if we do have the opportunity to do the sinful act but choose not to commit that sin because the costs are greater than the benefits. In that case, the selfish intentions of our hearts are still willing to commit the act, and we would only need to be put into a different situation in which the benefits to us are greater than the costs. At that point, our selfishness would ensure that we would choose that sin. In short, if we are guilty for what we would do if put in different circumstances, then when we do commit one particular sin, we are also guilty of all other sins, including really horrible sins. That means that when we commit one sin, we are just as guilty as those dictators and madmen who committed horrendous atrocities in the past. Now, I acknowledge that this conclusion might not sound right at first glance, but it follows logically from this first principle or moral philosophy that Jesus taught, which is clearly true. When we commit one sin, whether that sin is small or big, then at that time of sinning, we are as guilty as Hitler, or Stalin, or whatever tyrant we can name.

This is basically what James, the brother of Jesus, said when he indicated that he who breaks the moral law of God at one point is guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:10). Now James is not Jesus, but James was the brother of Jesus. As his brother, James knew Jesus personally for decades and had far more knowledge of what Jesus thought than we have. He was also leader of the Jerusalem church and had access to those who traveled with Jesus during the years of his ministry. If James says that breaking the law of God at one point makes a person guilty of breaking all of it, then that is evidence to support the claim that Jesus thought the same thing.

If you find it hard to believe that one seemingly small sin makes you morally guilty for all the worst crimes humans have committed, or if you would scoff or be offended by the claim that you would inflict tremendous evil and suffering on others, think with me for a moment about the people who would have thought the same thing before they faced situations of great evil. History is littered with examples of supposedly upstanding people who would also have been offended by the claim that they would commit horrendous evils. But do you know what? Their situation changed. The selfish benefits of doing what is right were removed. They would have paid a huge penalty for refusing to do what is wrong. In that new situation, recognizing that the costs of doing what is right now outweighed the benefits, they actually did horrendous evils.

The country of Germany, for example, had many upstanding, cultured citizens prior to the rise of Hitler, and if you had asked them whether they would commit horrendous crimes on their fellow humans, they probably would have scoffed at the idea and been offended by it. But that is in fact what happened. Hitler came to power, and German citizens themselves faced a different situation in which they would be punished or killed for refusing to go along with atrocities being committed by Hitler's regime. Doing what was right would have cost their lives or the loss of what was dear to them, and so they committed horrendous evils because they were selfish.

The same dynamic happens in other times of genocide in human history in which those with weapons or power tell others that they must kill or be killed, or must do some great harm or suffer a great cost. Think here of the Khmer Rouge, the Tutsi vs. Hutus, and other examples of genocide. Formerly upstanding citizens have been sucked into drug trafficking or prostitution when the threats of a drug cartel or gang made it costly to do what is right. On a less serious level, how many employees fudge the numbers or twist the truth because a domineering boss will punish them if they do not, or because they would miss out on a bonus if they told the truth?

All these are examples in which what we know is right is sacrificed because the costs to us become greater than the benefits. These examples make a point. If we can be bought at some price, however high that price is, then we are ultimately selfish. We would do horrendous evils; it is just that the costs of not doing so have not yet become high enough. My question for you is this: do you have a price at which you would choose to do horrendous evil? Pause a moment before you dismiss the question with a simple 'no'. Suppose a ruthless government, military, or gang tells you to do some horrendous evil. Suppose that, if you refuse, it threatens to torture, pillage, and kill your wife and children, and to subject you to torture and misery for the rest of your life before finally killing you. Can you really say that you would not give in and agree to do whatever horrendous evil the government or gang or military wants you to do? The only hope that I have for myself or for you in such a situation is that we would love something or someone outside of this world more than we love all that the world has to offer, something or someone that no government or evildoer can take away from us. I know of only one person or thing beyond this world who is capable of making me love him more than everything that I could lose in this world. That is my savior Jesus Christ, who entered this world to die for my sins so that I would get to live with him for eternity with a perfect resurrected body that no evil person or government can touch. What love do you have of something beyond this world that would stop you from committing horrendous evil if some military, government, or gang threatened to take away everything you hold dear in this life? If that love is not Jesus Christ, I don't see any other thing or person outside of this world that can can capture the affections of your heart so much that it would stop you from having a price at which you would commit horrendous evils. In short, you and I - we both need Jesus Christ.

Up to this point I have used the teaching of Jesus to show that we are morally guilty both for the sins that we do commit in the external world and also for the sins that we would commit if placed in different circumstances. I have also argued from the teaching of Jesus that committing one sin makes us guilty for all other sins. But even if you were convinced of those two points, you might still be unconvinced that all of those sins deserve eternal punishment. Yes, we would be guilty for a huge number of sins, but we still only have a finite life. How could the sins of a finite life ever deserve an infinite punishment?

This brings us to the third principle of moral philosophy that Jesus taught: Sin is blind to consequences for others. Suppose that a man were to cause great pain to just one person in order to get money, sex, or power, or some other thing he desires. What would keep him from harming two people to get that same thing? or two thousand? or two trillion? Would he stop himself from harming two trillion persons because he cares about doing what is right? No. It can't be that, because his decision to cause great pain and evil to one person already shows that he has no commitment to doing what is right. He is committed to himself. He is selfish, and that selfishness, in focusing on itself, is blind to how many people it hurts or harms, blind to consequences to others, and has its highest commitment to itself above the good of all others.

Jesus recognized this blindness of sin to the consequences for others in the Gospel of Luke (16:10). There, he says, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much." His point is that a person who is willing to do some evil will still be willing to do that evil even if the harm that is done to others is increased. The same is true for someone who is committed to doing right. If the selfish benefits of doing wrong are increased, the righteous man will still do what is right because his highest commitment is to doing what is right at whatever cost. The human heart does not change in character if the stakes are raised, and selfishness is not abandoned when the negative consequences to others are multiplied.

This principle of moral philosophy is directly relevant to the question whether a person with a finite life on earth can deserve eternal punishment, and even relevant for the traditional Christian doctrine that just one sin deserves eternal punishment. If it is true that the man who harms one person would harm a countless number of persons, that a man who is dishonest with little would be dishonest with much, because his sin is blind to consequences for others, this should make it clear the Christian doctrine of hell is just.

Suppose we were to deserve just one day of punishment for each person that we would have harmed. It could even be one minute or just one second; that smaller time of punishment would not significantly change my point. Would we deserve one day of punishment? Yes, because we sinned against one person. Would we deserve one thousand days of punishment? Yes, because we still would have committed the same sin even if it harmed one thousand people, and we are morally guilty for the sins we would commit if we were put in a different situation in which our sin would affect one thousand people. In fact, whatever positive integer you can propose for the number of persons we would harm, we would still have hurt that number of people because of the blindness of our sin to consequences for others, when the nature of sin is to focus on one's own self and ignore others.

This is relevant because the suffering that one experiences in hell will always be a finite amount of suffering. The objection that an infinite hell is unjust punishment for a finite act is based on an equivocation of the word 'infinite', because even the suffering of hell, though it will never end, will always be a finite amount and finite duration. Because a person's experience of hell had a beginning in the past, the suffering of hell for that person will never be an actual infinite duration (whatever one thinks regarding the philosophical question of whether actual infinites are even possible). Pick whatever point in the future you want, and the distance between that point and the point at which the person entered hell will always be a finite number. And since, when we sinned, we would have done however much harm to however many people to warrant the punishment of that finite amount of time, there is no point in a person's existence in hell at which his punishment would not be justified.

If the Biblical law of lex talionis (eye for eye and tooth for tooth) is a legitimate principle of justice for our morally wrong choices, and it is legitimate, then the blindness of our sin to consequences for others, a selfishness that would remain whatever the number of people harmed, would mean that both our suffering on earth and the suffering an unending but always finite amount in hell would be a just consequence of sin.

This is to say nothing of the fact that a person who sins on earth will continue to sin in hell for as long as the person is there. Such perpetual sinning in hell would continually increase the punishment that the person deserves. Thus, even if my three-part argument for how one sin deserves unending punishment were to fail, hell would still be just as long as those who are in hell continue to sin perpetually.

So, those are the three principles of moral philosophy that Jesus taught, and that is the three-part argument based on those principles that shows that hell is just. That is an uncomfortable truth, but I don't want to leave the impression that God is simply focused on giving us what we deserve without any desire to save us from that punishment. Here at the end, I would like to take a step back from the question of whether the eternal torment of hell is just to the question of the pain and suffering that we experience in this world. Why does God allow so much pain and suffering on earth? God might have a million reasons for why he permits different evils in this world, and I may look at some of those reasons some other time. But right now, I would like to focus on one of those reasons. The truth is that the unending punishment of hell is far worse than the pain and suffering we experience on earth, and one reason that God gives us a small taste on earth of what our sins actually deserve is that God wants to save us from the full extent of the consequences for sin in hell.

Think with me for a moment about doctors and healthcare professionals who administer vaccines, and even though there is some controversy about the matter, let us suppose for now that vaccines are safe. Why do doctors and healthcare professionals administer vaccines? When you get vaccinated, it can cause uncomfortable symptoms. You can get a fever. You can have body aches or pains. Why should we inconvenience ourselves with those symptoms? The reason is that if you don't let your body go through the uncomfortable but short process of recognizing a dead virus for what it is now, your body may experience a longer and much more painful process if it encounters a real virus later on.

The situation is similar for pain and suffering. If life were easy, many of us would feel a much weaker need for God or for redemption, and we don't want to admit that we are as bad as those people who committed horrendous crimes. However, God does not want us to live with a lie, especially when that lie keeps us from coming to Him for true redemption and salvation. God lets death and other evils rule this world for the very same reason we get vaccines. Just as we give vaccines so that the body would recognize a virus for what it is, God permits suffering and evil to push us sinners to recognize our sin for what it is and the punishment that such sin deserves. Evil and suffering repeatedly bring us back to the question of why. It causes us to search for an answer why the creator of the universe would permit such evil and suffering. What God desires is that our search would lead us to the truth that we deserve not just the pain and suffering of this life, but an unending amount of suffering in the next life. If we recognize that, then we would look for a savior, which is exactly what God has provided and what he wants us to receive before the day of final judgment comes and it is too late. If we think earthly doctors are good for causing us a small amount of pain to avoid a greater pain, how much greater should we think the heavenly doctor is good when he gives a finite pain to avoid pain without end?

Of course, if we don't have a solution for how bad we are, nor a way for our sins to be forgiven, and if that means that we stand guilty before the creator of the universe, often what appears to be an easier solution psychologically is just to deny our badness and our guilt and therefore say that God is unjust for allowing us to experience evil and suffering in this world. But God does offer a way for us to be saved, and he therefore will fight such a lie in order to push us towards finding a savior. A sick person will not accept the help of a doctor if that person thinks that he is healthy, and so God allows pain and suffering in his attempt to push people to acknowledge their sin and their brokenness and thus to come to Him for healing. Pain and suffering are thus like what C. S. Lewis said, 'God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world."' Salvation is a free gift that you do not earn. It is precisely when you admit that there is nothing morally good in you, when you admit that you need a doctor, that God would change your heart and put his Spirit in you. You come to the cross and the mercy of God first, and it is He who makes you holy and cleanses your heart. Then you will not need to fear the punishment of hell, and God will rejoice that you will be in a relationship of love with him for eternity.

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