Ask RC: How can an infinite hell be just when our sins are finite?
The wisdom of this question, I would argue, is that it gets at the real horror of hell. A lake of fire is a frightening thought indeed. The greater dread, however, is the duration of hell, that it never ends. This, I suspect, is what tempts some to try to tweak the church’s historic view on hell, including everyone from John Stott to Rob Bell. Is it possible to posit a truly terrifying, painful hell that only lasts a time? Can we affirm the just judgment of God, and still hope that it will one day come to an end?
Well yes you can posit it, but in so doing you would expose a lack of understanding of the scope of the evil of our sin, and a lack of understanding of the nature of God’s judgment. Sin, the church has argued, must be punished infinitely because we sin against an infinitely holy God. The problem with taking a cookie out of the cookie jar isn’t the cookie, nor the calories. Rather it is the shaking of our fist at the God of heaven and earth. When we commit even the smallest sin we are committing what one great theologian calls “cosmic treason.” When we steal the cookie we are declaring to the God who made us, who sustains us, who daily pours out His grace on us, “I WILL NOT HAVE YOU RULE OVER ME.” Thus we stand infinitely guilty, and no amount of intensity to the sinner’s pain can trump the eternity of the sinner’s pain. As painful as it may be to admit, anything less than eternal punishment would not be just, given the depth of our depravity in rebelling against our Maker.
If, however, that still does not satisfy ones sense of justice, if we still find God less than honorable to punish the earthly sins of men with an eternity in hell, consider this. Men do not cease to sin when they die. That is, the souls in hell are still unregenerate, still captive to their sin. Indeed they are all worse than they were when they were on earth. Hell lacks the common grace of God, the restraining grace of God. It is true that even the sinners below confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, but they do so with clenched teeth, seething with rage. It is true that their knees are bowed, but only because our Lord has broken them with a rod of iron. They hate God and curse Him for eternity.
Indeed one could argue that the deepest horror of hell is not that the pain will be so intense, nor that it will endure forever, but that we will ever become less and less what we were made to be. Without His grace we will continually devolve, and continually earn His continuing wrath. We, like hell, spiral ever downward into deeper and deeper darkness, deeper and deeper evil.
Hell is too dreadful a place to think on for too long. If you are comfortable with it, if the thought of it does not make you squirm, likely you don’t understand it. Sin, however, is still more dreadful, despite how comfortable we are with it. Hell is forever.