“And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” (Isaiah 66:24)
Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12:2)
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matt. 25:41,46)
If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:15)
For most of the Church’s existence the belief that punishment for unbelievers is eternal was taken for granted. The above verses, especially the one in Isaiah, were the basis for what’s become known as the traditional view.
But then an alternative, called the conditional view, came on the scene. This view is based primarily on Rev. 20:12 which says that the unsaved dead will be judged according to their works. Proponents of the conditional view interpret this verse to mean that while no unbeliever can go to heaven, their punishment will be based on the quality of their lives while on Earth. Those who’ve led meritorious lives on earth will receive less severe punishment for a shorter period of time than say a Hitler or Stalin before being destroyed altogether. They claim that this view makes more sense because it shows God to be fair, making the punishment fit the crime so to speak, before mercifully ending their existence altogether.
On the surface it seems to make sense and some people are more comfortable with this view than the traditional one that appears excessively harsh to them and of no purpose other than making people suffer. But is the conditional view the result of greater enlightenment in our understanding of Scripture or just another in a long line of attempts to re-cast God’s word into a kinder gentler document as it pertains to those who’ve rejected Him?
A closer look reveals that the conditional view is decidedly biased toward the world view of unbelievers. They look at the traditional view and say, “All I did is not believe that Jesus died for me. Other than that I tried to live a good life and I helped a fair amount of people along the way. What did I do to deserve eternal punishment?”
What they don’t realize of course is that they failed to do the only thing God requires. Since the cross, God has only asked one thing of us.
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”(John 8:28-29)
If He’s going to judge unbelievers by how they’ve done the works that He requires of them, it’ll all be over pretty quickly because without that even the good we do otherwise is considered evil in God’s sight.
Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matt. 7:22-23)
So much for a meritorious life!
Unbelievers don’t think rejecting the Lord is a big deal because they don’t appreciate the value of the life that was sacrificed for them, and they don’t realize that their rejection of His sacrifice has eternal implications. Because of their unbelief they’re only thinking in terms of a 70-80 year lifespan, not an eternal existence.
Surprisingly, believers who adopt the conditional view make the same mistake. In saying that it makes the punishment fit the crime and gives credit for good behavior they’re only considering Earthly things, not heavenly ones.
So let’s take a look at this from the eternal perspective and try to understand how different it is. Unlike discipline we receive from God, His punishment is not intended to help us learn something. Rather it’s the penalty we must pay for having done something. The man who is executed or given life in prison for killing someone is not being taught that it’s wrong to kill people. He’s being punished for his crime. It’s an adaptation of the Biblical injunction, a life for a life (Lev. 24:17) On Earth we’re in a physical environment so it’s a physical life for a physical life.
But a person who rejects the pardon God provided for him has in effect murdered his own soul and spirit which have eternal existence, so the punishment has to be eternal to fit the crime. Our physical bodies are only intended to serve a temporary purpose, and that’s to house the eternal part of us for a little while. Compared to our eternal existence, putting our physical existence to death is a minor infraction. This is why Jesus told His disciples not to fear those who can only kill the body, but rather fear him who can kill both body and soul (Matt. 10:28). He was talking about Satan of course, but those who reject the Lord’s pardon for their sins turn themselves over to Satan for his disposition.
Refusing to accept the Lord’s completed work on the cross as payment in full for our sins is a crime against our eternal life and therefore the only just punishment is eternal punishment.