Many people today refuse to believe that God’s punishment for those who reject Him is eternal. Not that we can really, fully grasp what eternity would be like, but what sense we can make of such concepts leaves us feeling that the punishment simply doesn’t “fit the crime.” We don’t send people to prison for life for taking a thing of minor value. Even if we sinned against God every day of, say, an 80-year life, how could punishment that is still being imposed a gazillion years later still be fair?
Furthermore, they reason, God could cut the punishment short, couldn’t He? Why not a reprieve after an adequate length of time, or if not that, then at least annihilation? Isn’t oblivion better than eternal torment?
There is no reason I can think of that would limit God’s options as to what lies beyond. But I start from the premise that a perfect being has set things up in a way that is just. So, why then would “justice” require eternal torment?
Perhaps the problem lies in our view of the nature of time and eternity. Like a fish asked to describe what life on land would be like, it isn’t easy for us to contemplate such foreign notions as “living forever.” But God is not bound by time. He created time at the same point (from our perspective) that he created matter – what’s referred to as the time-space continuum. There is never a before or after for him; only an eternal present. He may have brought us into existence at a point on that time-space continuum, but because he is not bound by it, it is non-sensical to think of God as waiting for our birth in the same way that our Earthly parents did. From his perspective, we are always eternally present to him, at whatever stage of life we may perceive ourselves to be. When our souls depart this time-space continuum, they too cease to be bound by time. That, simply put, is why the torment is eternal: because God is eternal.
Seen from this light, death is the dividing point: if God does not destroy the soul when the body dies, the soul becomes timeless. It experiences eternity because there is no alternative. When time is removed, there is nothing to end. The question then becomes, can we square such a view with any understanding of “mercy?” Can we continue to view God as “loving, merciful and just” – attributes we contend He has in infinite measure – while also holding to the existence of a place of torment that God created and sustains without end?
Defining terms is the best first step. “Mercy” is the disposition to give someone an undeserved benefit. More specifically in this context, mercy is on display when forgiveness is extended that is not earned. In isolation, “mercy” would require that all be saved. But unlimited mercy would mean that those who seek to thwart God’s will would nonetheless be joined with Him when their earthly life ended. They would be rewarded with infinite good, notwithstanding the quantity or quality of their offenses. “Justice,” by contrast, requires that a wrongdoer be held accountable, not rewarded, and that an appropriate response be imposed. The response must be measured, of course, but justice cannot celebrate wrongdoing. Unlimited mercy would, therefore, defeat justice. Finally, “love” involves a commitment of the will to the good of the other. In this context, a perfectly loving God wills the greatest good for all his creation. If the good includes free will, then God must allow us the free to reject him and separate ourselves from him.
These attributes appear contradictory. But are they? Is there a way in which they can be reconciled? Justice requires a response to our misbehavior. At a bare minimum, that response involves God separating the wrongdoer from himself. Separating ourselves from those who would harm us is a basic right; there is no reason that it would not also apply to God. Separation from the source of all goodness is necessarily an expression of the ultimate torment. Imagine being aware of the loving family that wants to embrace you but remaining locked away from them, behind an impenetrable barrier.
But God does not compel this result. Through his unmerited mercy, we are all being given the chance to not get what we deserve, to be allowed to reunite with Him. But he will not force this, because forcing us to accept him runs contrary to any notion of free will. Instead, God shows his infinite love by giving us the freedom to choose what we want. The resulting conclusion may seem shocking, but Hell is actually good too. God created it for a purpose, and God has no bad purposes. So what is the good? That those who choose to rebel against God, despite the offer of mercy, are dealt with justly. If separation from God is what they want, then there is nothing more to be said. In a way (though not completely), Hell can be analogized to prisons on Earth: yes, they may seem “bad” to the people inside them, but their purpose and function are good. They separate those who remain intransigent in their desire to harm others from their intended victims.
Eternity, then, is both the good news and the bad - good because we all feel innately the desire to go on living forever. We all feel the clock ticking away, as our bodies and minds continue their inexorable decay. That’s why potions to prolong life have captured our imagination since time immemorial. But we want that life to be healthy, productive and enjoyable. We want the good times to keep rolling on. But we cannot have it both ways. We cannot be destined to escape this temporal prison we presently inhabit, while at the same time be allowed to thwart justice.
To recap, time has no impact on God. He could destroy the soul when the body died, but then his plan to create us and allow us fellowship with him would be thwarted, as would justice for all our wrongdoing. If he allows the soul to survive death, the soul departs the time-space continuum, at which point time no longer functions. The soul lives timelessly, with no end, because end points are functions of time, and there is no longer a temporal limitation.
So, “eternal” punishment is not a period of confinement, measured in days and months and years. Comparative analysis – of crime v. punishment – therefore has no relevance, because hell is not a place of endless torture. It is not a place at all, but a condition of the rebellious soul, cut off from the source of all that is good, focusing inward in a forever of self-centered darkness. It lasts forever because forever is all there is on the other side of the time-space continuum.
We can’t have it both ways, it seems. When God made us, it was for eternity. That’s why the stakes here are so high.