Continued from yesterday
A serious question, however, is what "eternal punishment" is. Does Matthew want us to see the wicked suffering forever and ever? Certainly this is the understanding of hell that most of us have grown up hearing. Hell is a place where those who do not believe in Jesus suffer forever.
This is a very sensitive topic, and we should make a couple things very clear from the very beginning. First, there is a right or wrong answer, and it is not a matter of a vote. Like the question of whether God literally exists as a being who thinks, acts, and exists completely independent of us, the answer has nothing to do with us. Either God literally exists or he doesn't. In the same way, hell is either a place of never ending torment or it isn't. Whether I like it or not has nothing to do with it.
The second point is that the questions so many seem to be asking right now about hell are not simply some problem with our culture or lack of spirituality. They are real and difficult questions. Hell as we traditionally think of it is a place of infinite punishment. But even the sins of Hitler, Stalin, or the worse serial killer of all time at least seem finite. How could hell be just if God gives an endless punishment for finite crimes?
Some Christians have coherently answered that even one sin against God is an infinite sin and thus that even one violation of God's law is worthy of eternal hell. Yet this is an idea that comes from someone reading between the lines. The Bible doesn't actually say this.
It's even harder for us to put ourselves in God's place and imagine sending someone to never ending torment. How long would any of us let our worse enemy suffer in a fire, and what state of mind would it take for us to prolong it? If someone murdered my daughter, how long would I let them suffer in a fire before I mercifully told the executioner to put them out of their misery? An hour? What attitude would it take me to let that murderer go on suffering in a fire for a day or a week? It's hard for me to imagine how much hate I would have to have to let my enemy burn for a year.
Of course God is not a man. We at least must think of hell more in terms of justice than of vengeance. But again, in human terms, how cold and unfeeling would I have to be to let someone burn in torment for a whole month, even as a punishment for horrible crimes? We like to think that God is sad for people to go to hell--"I'm not sending you there. You're sending yourself, and I'm sad to see you go." But is God not God? Is he a slave to some abstract concept of justice? Does he not have the authority to pardon someone after a thousand years of torment, after a million or a billion years of torment?
What we are saying is that these are not just the questions of an unbeliever. They are the kinds of questions a believer might ask precisely because they believe God is "a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity" (Jonah 4:2). We cannot
wish hell away. We cannot get together and vote it into non-existence. But it is at the very least understandable if we find some tension between our belief that "mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13) and the traditional interpretation of eternal punishment.
It is well above my--or your--pay grade to determine what God does with hell. What we might do is clarify a little what the Bible seems to say and what it doesn't likely say about it...