“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 mankind’s existence the belief that punishment for unbelievers is eternal was taken for granted. The above verses were the basis for what’s become known as the traditional view of hell.
But recently an alternative, called the conditional view, has come on the scene. This view is based primarily on Rev. 20:12 which says 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 in hell will be based on the quality of their lives while on Earth. They contend that those who’ve led meritorious lives on Earth but aren’t believers 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 serves 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?
My Ways Are Not Your Ways
A closer look reveals that the idea of a conditional hell is decidedly biased toward the world view of unbelievers. Conditional hell proponents say, “All they did is not believe that Jesus died for them. Other than that many unbelievers tried to live a good life and helped a fair amount of people along the way. What did they do to deserve eternal punishment?”
What these people don’t realize of course is that unbelievers will have failed to do the only thing God required of them. 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 6:28-29)
If God is going to judge unbelievers by how they’ve done the work He requires of them, it’ll all be over pretty quickly because without belief in Jesus even the good they might have accomplished is considered evil in God’s sight. How do I know that? Read the Lord’s own words;
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 the value of a meritorious life!
Unbelievers don’t think rejecting the Lord is a big deal because they don’t realize that their rejection of His sacrifice for their sins has eternal consequences. Because of their unbelief they’re only thinking in terms of a 70-80 year lifespan, not an eternal existence. So let’s take a look at this from the eternal perspective and try to understand how different it is.
First let’s understand that the man who is executed or given life in prison for taking someone’s life is not being taught that murder is wrong. He’s suffering the consequence of his crime by forfeiting the balance of his physical life . 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. Both are eternal, so there has to be an eternal consequence 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. 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.
And That’s Not All
But there’s an even more powerful legal argument for eternal punishment that for centuries was modeled in human existence as well. Until the mid 19th Century it was common practice in many parts of the world to incarcerate a person for failure to pay his or her debts. Jail time was not an alternative method of repayment, it was the consequence they suffered for their inability to pay their debt. No matter how long they were locked up they still owed as much of their debt as they did on their first day behind bars. They could only be freed by repaying the money they owed. Jesus referred to this practice in His parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:23-35).
It’s the same with our sins. Punishment is not an alternative method unbelievers can use to pay the penalty for their sins, it’s the consequence they’ll suffer for their inability to pay the penalty. No matter how long a person suffers in eternity, they will still owe the same penalty as they did on day one. The only acceptable payment for sin is the blood of an innocent person, and nothing else will suffice. Hebrews 9:22 explains that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Therefore no one can “work off” his or her penalty through suffering.
This is the fatal flaw in the Catholic concept of purgatory. It calls for a person who dies with certain unconfessed sins to “work off” the penalty for those sins through their suffering and the intercessory prayers of living relatives in order to qualify for entry into heaven. But there’s only one way for humans to qualify for entry into heaven and that’s by accepting the blood of Jesus as payment for our sins (John 3:3). Once we do that all of our sins are covered (Colossians 2:13-14). But we have to do it before we die (Hebr. 9:27) or else it’s too late.
It’s also the flaw in the conditional view of hell. If the blood of Jesus is the only way to be released from the penalty for our sins, then there’s no escape for those who reject it. No matter how numerous or noteworthy, the “good works” unbelievers perform during their lifetime can’t be applied to reduce their sentence and neither can the “time served” after they die, so they’ll always owe the same penalty as they did on day one of their incarceration.
The bottom line is the only acceptable payment for our sins is the blood of a sinless man, and the only sinless man is Jesus. He died for all the sins of mankind (John 1:29) but only those who choose to accept His death as payment for their sins can be forgiven. The refusal to accept it leaves everyone else unable to pay and requires that they be incarcerated. Since they’re eternal beings and since they’ll never be able to pay, they’ll have to remain incarcerated forever.