Why is Hell Eternal?
If you have grown up in the church, you know that the only just punishment for sin is Hell. You also know that Hell is described in the Bible in three general ways — a separation from all goodness that God brings to existence (2 Peter 2:4), positive retribution for our sins (Mark 9:47-49), and a process of eternal destruction and dying without ever being annihilated (Matthew 10:28). But, sometimes people ask, why does it have to be eternal (Matthew 25:41)? Are our sins that bad that they deserve eternal condemnation? The answer, of course, is yes — this indeed is the testimony of the Scriptures. But again, the question before us is “why”?
Perhaps an analogy is helpful. Do you realize that the one against whom you commit a crime determines (at least in part) the severity of the crime? For example, if I walk down the street of our local town of Zelienople and punch someone in the nose, I will get in trouble (rightly so!). Since I do not have a criminal record, though, I probably would just be given a slap on the wrist, perhaps a fine, and maybe even some community service. If I happened to break the other person’s nose, then I would probably have to pay any medical expenses.
But imagine the difference in the scenario had I walked up to a police officer and punched him in the nose…or to the mayor. The punishment would be more severe and lengthy, would it not? Now, imagine again that I did the same thing, but I did so to the president of the United States. Now, I might be locked up in prison for a season (if not longer!). Can you see how the severity of the crime is greater given the importance of the person offended?
Let’s build on the analogy, though, and shift the offense from an active crime to a matter of disrespect. Imagine that I am walking through downtown Zelienople during Horse Trading Days (a local community event where craftsmen and artisans show their wares. Now imagine me walking by a painting by a local student — it is skillfully done, but will probably never hang in a museum. Now, imagine that as I walk by I mock the painting and the one who painted it. That would be quite disrespectful, but how much more disrespectful it would be were there a world-class painter showing his or her wares and I did the same?
To go even further, imagine that you invite me over for a meal and you have worked the day away in the kitchen preparing the meal to your best ability. It would be disrespectful were I not to show my gratitude for the meal and my appreciation for your creation. Yet imagine that you were a world renown chef and had done the same thing. Would it not be even more disrespectful were I to have shown contempt for his or her skillful labors?
The point is that God is infinitely more powerful than the President of the United States. And, his work is infinitely more praiseworthy than the greatest painter in the history of mankind or of the greatest chef that the world has ever produced. He is God! That means that the punishment for our sin against God — whether that sin is an active offense, a matter of scorn, or that of passively neglecting to honor Him with worship for his greatness — is infinitely more severe than a sin we could commit against another human. And since the sin is infinite in its greatness, it only suits that the punishment is infinite in its severity and duration.
And, we also need to be reminded that every sin that we commit against man is a sin that we also commit against God (Psalm 51:4). And so, just as the punishment issued by a righteous judge is commiserate with the crime and cumulative on the basis of the number of crimes committed, our punishment for sin is eternity plus eternity plus eternity in an infinite progression given our countless sins against God, against his name, against his creation, and against his people. And so, hell is eternal — “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything that is written in the book of the Law” (Deuteronomy 27:26).