In part two of this series I attempted to explain why it is just for nonbelievers to suffer eternal judgment for a temporal period of sin.
I proposed that since God is an infinitely and eternally holy being, sinning against this God means committing an eternal offense. Temporal sins against an eternal God bear eternal consequences. Therefore, eternal punishment is the cost of offending an eternally perfect moral being.
This article will address a related question:
Doesn’t the traditional Christian view of eternal conscious punishment in hell mean that there is no final closure to the problem of evil?
The theological concern expressed here is that even after the close of human history with the Second Coming of Christ and the unfolding of the eternal state, the doctrine of eternal punishment means that God must continue to punish sinners forever and ever. Proponents of annihilationism (the view that God punishes nonbelievers for a period of time in hell but subsequently obliterates them), perceive this as a major weakness in the traditional concept because, as they claim, evil is never truly vanquished.
The Doctrine of Eternal Conscious Punishment
Before addressing this question, I need to point out that there is clear and persuasive biblical support for accepting the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment. The following three passages from the New Testament represent such support.
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 (Matthew 25:41, 46).
Annihilationist advocates are fond of saying that only the “result” (obliteration) of the punishment is eternal in duration. However, the most straightforward reading of this passage says that if “eternal life” is eternal in duration then “eternal punishment” is also.
And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever (Revelation 14:11).
This same biblical expression, “for ever and ever,” (Greek: aionas, “unending”) is applied in other places to the “unending” worship of God (Revelation 1:6, 4:9, 5:13). Exegetically speaking, if God is worshipped forever then the punishment of hell is equivalent in duration.
And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever (Revelation 20:10).
Those who are cast into the lake of fire suffer unending torment. The expression “day and night” conveys unending or ceaseless punishment.
The doctrine of eternal punishment is sobering and serves to remind us that God is perfectly just and holy (Psalm 98:9; Isaiah 6:3).
In getting back to the original question, note that, unlike human judiciaries, God, as the ultimate judge, holds free moral agents perfectly responsible for their actions. If a human being rejects the Creator and wants to assert their autonomy, then God will insist that the person be banished from his presence for all eternity and pay for their unjust and disobedient actions.
Rebellion against an eternal God carries eternal consequences. Therefore, God’s continued punishment extends his justice forever. There is no evidence that nonbelievers ever repent, not even in hell (though they will undoubtedly have great regret). God’s sentence of eternal separation for nonbelievers perpetuates his righteous and just reign for all eternity. The eternality of divine punishment illustrates that God effectively confronts evil forever.
While advocates of annihilationism often question how eternal conscious punishment comports with God’s mercy, defenders of the traditional Christian doctrine on hell assert that God’s awesome justice must never be minimized.
For a defense of the traditional Christian doctrine of eternal conscious punishment, see Alan W. Gomes, “Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell, Part One,” Christian Research Journal (Spring 1991): 14.