Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Does the Character of God Require Him to Subject the Unrighteous to Eternal Conscious Torment?


I have heard a number of well meaning Christians say something like this: “God’s character necessitates that He pour out His wrath on conscious sinners for all of eternity” (from “Before Rethinking Hell, Rethink the Worthiness of God” by Jacob Brunton).

I will interact with Jacob’s article because it was recently brought to my attention and because it helps to have a specific example of this argument to interact with.


Evidence and Motivations

Early in his article, Jacob writes, “Shockingly, advocates of annihilationism claim that consistency with the nature and character of God is a driving motivation behind their view.” While this statement is not directly part of Jacob’s argument, it merits a few quick comments:

1. For myself the character of God was not the main evidence or reason that initially convinced me that conditional immortality rather than eternal torment is true. What initially convinced me was a careful study of what the Bible has to say about the final fate of the unsaved. As I have been an active part of the Rethinking Hell community for several years now, I can say with confidence that this is also true of many others who have shifted from belief in eternal torment to belief in conditional immortality. Unless the best biblical, exegetical conditionalist arguments are answered, more philosophical arguments like Jacob’s will have little influence on us. And in this article, Jacob does not even attempt to address our biblical case, much less succeed.

2. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which Jacob’s statement is correct. While the character of God was not the initial reason I became convinced of conditional immortality, the damage that the doctrine of eternal torment does to God’s character is, in fact, a major motivation for me arguing for conditional immortality and against eternal torment. In the eyes of many people, the doctrine of eternal torment makes God look more like a cruel, tyrannical monster than the good, loving God we find described in the Bible. And I read about many people naming the doctrine of eternal torment as a chief reason for rejecting evangelical Christianity. That alone does not prove that eternal torment is false, but since I see strong evidence that the Bible does not teach eternal torment, I am motivated to work, with God’s help, to correct this widespread error.


Does Eternal Punishment mean Eternal Conscious Punishment in the Bible?

Early in his article, Jacob argues that the only valid meaning of “eternal punishment” is “eternal conscious punishment.” This does not seem to me to be central to his main argument, but I will address it briefly. The Bible speaks of “eternal judgment” (Hebrew 6:2). Now, since the Bible also speaks of “the day of judgment” (Matthew 10:15 and 6 other verses), we should not imagine that the process of judging will go on forever. What does “eternal judgment” mean then? It means that the results of the judgment are permanent and will never change. After God’s judgment is given, He will not change His mind a million years later. Therefore, “eternal judgment” is not an eternal process of judging, but rather a judgment that takes a finite time to carry out but is then permanent and never changes. Something similar is true for the biblical phrase “eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). And there is good reason to believe that the same thing applies to “eternal punishment.” It is not an eternal process of punishing, but rather a punishment that takes a finite time to execute, but once complete is permanent and never reversed. (You may see a more detailed discussion of the phrase “eternal punishment” and the one verse where the phrase is found in this 10-minute video on Matthew 25:46.)

Before moving on, I should point out that Jacob’s reason for bringing up the phrase “eternal punishment” was not primarily to present a biblical, exegetical argument in favor of eternal conscious torment, but rather to point out that both conditionalists (those who believe in annihilation) and traditionalists (those who believe in eternal conscious torment) claim to believe in eternal punishment. He basically argues that because we conditionalists believe that eternal torment is not proportional to the sins people commit (that is true, and it should be obvious), that we should believe that annihilation is also not proportional to people’s sins because annihilation is also an eternal punishment. I hope you can immediately see where this argument is not logical. Just because we believe that one type of eternal punishment (a permanent death sentence – annihilation) is just and proportional does not mean that we must believe that another type of eternal punishment (eternal torment) is also just and proportional. That would only be true if eternal torment and annihilation were equally severe forms of eternal punishment or if annihilation were the more severe of the two. There are a few people who think that, but not very many. His argument would be similar to saying if I believe execution by crucifixion is an exceedingly cruel punishment that we should not use, then I must also believe that execution by lethal injection is an exceedingly cruel punishment that we should not use. That simply is not a logical argument.


God’s Great Worth

Jacob spends some time arguing that God must value Himself infinitely or maximally. He argues that God really is maximally valuable and that surely God knows this and values all things rightly, and so He must value Himself maximally. I have no problem with this part of his argument. I agree that God is maximally valuable and rightly values Himself accordingly. I don’t remember ever hearing any proponent of conditional immortality say anything contrary to this.

But then Jacob states this premise as part of his argument that God must pour out His wrath on conscious sinners for all eternity:

“If God does not inflict eternal conscious torment on His enemies, then it is either because (a) He is not infinitely valuable, or (b) He is infinitely valuable but does not see Himself as infinitely valuable.”

What? It is far from obvious that this statement is true, and if it is not, then Jacob’s whole argument fails (I invite you to read his article and see for yourself). As best as I can tell, this statement is itself supposed to be based on the prior claim that “sin is ultimately an offense against the worth of God.” But what, precisely, does that mean? If it merely means that we fail to recognize the worth of God (His goodness, wisdom, the rightness of His ways, etc.) at some level when we sin, that’s fine. But in that case, there is no reason to think it calls for eternal torment. In fact, because at least part of the reason for such a failure is a degree of ignorance about how good, wise, and holy God is, this could actually serve as a mitigating factor in how serious the sin is. Sin out of ignorance is less serious than sin in the light of clear knowledge (see Luke 12:47-48, Luke 23:34, and for a Rethinking Hell article that also addresses this issue you may read Lessons from a Tragedy at the Cincinnati Zoo.)

I can think of one theoretical way in which sinning against God’s worth might actually warrant eternal torment. I suppose if by sinning against the worth of God we actually somehow decreased His worth, especially if someone took all of His worth away, then that really might call for eternal torment as a proportional punishment. But our sins never actually decrease God’s worth (or His holiness, or any of His other attributes) at all. God is worth just as much after a person sins as He was before they sinned. I just can’t see how Jacob’s argument here works at all. Why should the greatness of God’s worth determine the degree of punishment of sinners, when God’s worth has not been reduced in the least by their sin?


Philosophical vs. Exegetical Arguments

When reading arguments that basically claim that God’s character requires eternal torment for those who sin against Him, it is worth asking how many of the claims and statements that are made in the argument can be supported by Scripture. Usually, some of the claims can be. For example, Jacob rightly points out that in some sense all sin is ultimately sin against God, even when it is also sin against other people. I think that can be supported. But that by itself does not get you close to human sins requiring eternal torment. There are other steps in the argument for which there are no good biblical support. These steps and premises are usually based on philosophical grounds or are propped up by quoting other Christians who held these views. Philosophical arguments and the views of other Christians can be either right or wrong, but they should never be used to overthrow the clear and direct teaching of the Bible. And the Bible clearly teaches that the final fate of the unrighteous is for God to destroy their bodies and souls in hell (Matthew 10:28), for them to perish (John 3:16), and for them to be turned to ashes (2 Peter 2:6). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of biblical teaching that supports conditional immortality (see these two short videos for more:  Why I Believe in Annihilationism and What is Conditional Immortality?).


Does the thought of God tormenting the unsaved forever inspire worship?

Jacob also claims that, “A God who does not inflict eternal punishment upon His enemies is a God who is not worthy of worship.” That certainly is neither obvious nor intuitive. Do we worship God only because of His power? Don’t we also worship Him because He is good? It is very hard to see how creating a situation where many people will remain in some type of torment (whether physical or emotional) with no joy, hope, or peace for many billions of years, and then billions more, and then on and on forever, is good. If that’s good, then the word “good” has lost all meaning and it becomes pointless to say that God is good.

Now, I do think that God’s justice can be and should be part of the reason we worship Him. But why should we think that justice demands keeping people in torment forever? If people do not deserve eternal life (and outside of Christ, none of us do), then isn’t depriving them of eternal life justice? Destroying evil is a good action, and I believe that we will worship God for doing that. After all, we don’t want evil to go on forever, so we can be thankful that God does not grant evil, unrepentant people eternal life. For eternal torment to be true, however, God does have to grant the unrepentant, evil people eternal life and evil will exist forever. It also worth remembering that we will be worshiping God forever for  reasons other than His justice, like His mercy and love and salvation and the fact that He created everything. Can you really imagine someone feeling like they cannot worship God unless He torments the unsaved forever?


A relevant Bible Passage

Is there any Bible passage that sounds even a little bit like Jacob’s argument? I think the closest we can come is this passage from Romans:

CSB17 Romans 9:22 And what if God, wanting to display his wrath and to make his power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath prepared for destruction?

 23 And what if he did this to make known the riches of his glory on objects of mercy that he prepared beforehand for glory—

24 on us, the ones he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

This passage does indeed show a connection between God’s wrath and us seeing His glory. But notice that the objects of wrath are not prepared for eternal torment, they are prepared for destruction. (The Greek word translated “destruction” here is apōleia, which, along with its closely related verb, apollumi, is an excellent choice to communicate annihilation. In fact, ancient Greek authors used apollumi to mean what we mean by annihilation. I document this in a video-word study that you may view here: Apollumi, The Word that Tells us What Happens to People in Hell.)


A philosophical problem

While I view exegetical evidence as the biggest evidence for conditional immortality and against eternal torment, those who believe in eternal torment also face a difficult philosophical problem.

God promises to “pay back” people for their sins (see this blog post for many Bible verses that show this is true:  Hell is Payback). However, if eternal torment is true, than God never does fully pay back the unrighteous for their sins because even after a trillion years of torment they apparently have only paid an infinitesimally small portion of what they owe. And this will always be true no matter how many years they are in torment. Thus, God does not pay them back and justice is never satisfied and complete.



Arguments that claim that God’s worth (or holiness or character) somehow requires Him to punish the unsaved with eternal torment are flawed because they:

1. Do not work logically

2. Are not supported biblically

3. In fact, produce a conclusion that is contrary to the Bible’s teaching on the nature of final punishment

4. And have their own difficult philosophical problem 

On the other hand, there is good biblical evidence for conditional immortality!

A final pastoral note: Just because I believe Jacob and others who have made similar arguments (I’ve heard many versions of this argument) are wrong on this point does not mean that I don’t accept them as my brothers and sisters in Christ. I believe that we should be able to disagree on the nature of final punishment and still be able to worship and serve together. We should all work together with God’s help and strength in order to win as many as possible of our neighbors to faith in Christ so that they can experience His forgiveness, receive His gracious gift of eternal life, and give Him the worship He is worthy of.


Saturday, January 8, 2022

Celebrating the James Webb Telescope and Every Baby



NASA, astronomers, and science geeks around the world are celebrating today.

Far beyond the moon and out of view of any human observer, the $10,000,000,000 (that’s ten billion!) James Webb Telescope has successfully taken shape. It had to be folded up and secured to fit into its rocket casing and to keep it safe from damage while being launched from the earth. Once in space, hundreds of movable pieces all had to work precisely as it unfolded or the telescope would be worthless. Its location in space put it beyond the reach of any repair crews. There were a multitude of ways in which things could go wrong and render the telescope useless. There was a long series of precise ways in which things had to go right. And so far, everything has gone right.

A large, tennis-court sized solar shield with five layers had to be unfolded to allow the telescope to cool down to its frigid operating range. Communication antennas had to be deployed and function correctly or it would be unable to send images back to earth. The secondary mirror on its long boom had to be put into place. And then the large left and right sides of the primary mirror had to unfold. A heat radiator had to be deployed and various temporary covers had to be removed. You may learn more about the many steps (called deployments) here:

James Webb Deployments

For so many parts to work together so perfectly to achieve one big overall goal (being able to take images of items in our universe that so far we have not been able to see) obviously took a great deal of engineering and design. The telescope has layers of systems that all work together to achieve its goal: propulsion systems, navigation systems, heat shield and heat radiator systems, communication systems, optic systems, and instrument systems each contain many parts and each are necessary. The engineers and scientists have built a truly amazing tool and deserve to be congratulated.

Yet, for all its complexity, the James Webb telescope unfolding in deep space pales in comparison with the marvel of every human baby that forms in its mother’s womb. The division of a single cell is a marvel that easily surpasses the complexity and wonder of the James Webb telescope. Yet, by the time that baby becomes an adult it will consist of some 37 trillion cells!

Those trillions of cells are formed into numerous body systems that all work together to allow a human to live and think and learn and walk and talk and dance and worship. Among the body’s systems are our circulatory system that includes a pump that must work continuously without breaks for our entire 80 or 90 or 100+ years. It includes a respiratory system and a digestive system that both integrate closely with the circulatory system. It includes a skeletal system with over 200 precisely shaped and positioned bones. Our bodies also boast a vast and complex range of muscles that move everything from our feet to our eyes. We have an amazingly complex immune system to protect us.  And then we have our amazing sensors: for optics, for sound, for touch and temperature sensing, and for taste. All these systems (and there are more) are overseen by a nervous system that connects to what may be the most functionally complex physical object in the universe: the human brain.

All those cells making up all those systems unfold precisely inside the womb out of our sight. Comparing the marvel of human development and design to the Webb telescope would be like comparing the Webb telescope itself to a Lego model (yet even a child’s Lego model would require intelligent design to come together properly). If the Webb’s human designers deserve to be congratulated (and I think they do), the Designer of the human body and the processes that produce beautiful babies deserves so much more. In fact, He deserves to be worshiped.


For it was you who created my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb.

 I will praise you because I have been remarkably and wondrously made.

Your works are wondrous, and I know this very well.

(Psalm 139:13-14 CSB17)


Related Material:

Three YouTube video on scientific evidence for God related to (1) the fine tuning of the universe, (2) the origin of life, and (3) the beginning of the universe.

A whole collection of blog posts on scientific evidence for God.








Hebrews 13:16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others . . .